C-SPAN looks to generate new revenue through ads, streaming

The political affairs cable network has seen a decline in revenue as people increasingly cut the cord.

C-SPAN 40 Years: A Message from our Founder

Six years ago, political affairs network C-SPAN announced it was placing its once-free live video feeds behind a paywall, forcing users who wanted to watch its online coverage to prove that they pay for cable or satellite television service.

Now the company is thinking twice about this move.

In a report published by Multichannel News on Monday, the not-for-profit political broadcast network is gravitating toward an advertisement-supported model across its various digital properties, including C-SPAN branded social media channels.

The move comes as C-SPAN sees a decline in affiliate fees that prop up the network. The network is operated as a consortium funded by cable and satellite companies like Comcast, Charter/Spectrum, Cox Cable, AT&T and Dish Network, each of which carry the network’s three channels on their platforms. C-SPAN accepts no federal funding.

The decline in affiliate fees is largely attributed to a consumer trend away from expensive cable and satellite packages for cheaper linear and on-demand streaming services like Netflix, Philo and Amazon Prime Video.

Last year, C-SPAN began experimenting with other revenue models, including running ads against videos uploaded to its YouTube page.

“We didn’t hear a peep because people are so used to it,” Peter Kiley, a C-SPAN executive, said in an interview with Multichannel News, with “it” referring to ads on the popular Google-owned website.

Pre-roll and mid-roll advertisements came next on C-SPAN’s various podcast offerings, Kiley said. The company admits its podcast audience is small compared to those distributed by other companies.

“By rolling out limited advertising on our digital platforms, including our YouTube channel, on podcasts and on C-SPAN.org, we are beginning to diversify our revenue streams,” Kiley said.

As C-SPAN continues to explore ways to generate new revenue, the company has recently looked to expanding on streaming pay TV platforms. Currently, the service is only offered on AT&T TV Now, but executives have had conversations with Google’s YouTube TV and Disney’s Hulu about adding the three C-SPAN channels. Neither Google or Disney has agreed to carry the network.

Getting carriage on streaming pay TV services might be an uphill battle for C-SPAN: The bulk of the channel’s live coverage originates from feeds provided by the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Signals that are often said to be originating from “C-SPAN’s cameras” on the floor of each chamber actually originate with production staff hired by the U.S. federal government.

Those feeds are available online, for free, via web streams distributed by both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, and significant events like confirmation hearings and legislative votes of national interest are typically carried live by cable news channels and commercial broadcasters alike on traditional TV and through free streaming offerings.

In other words, C-SPAN is essentially competing against other offerings — nearly all of which are free — for some of the networks most-watched content.  In recent weeks, C-SPAN has seen an uptick in traffic across its digital properties during the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett — an event that was live-streamed by ABC, CBS, NBC and others without cost.

C-SPAN drops its digital paywall for events that originate within the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, and it will often make available for free events that are widely distributed on other channels. But its original programming, including its daily call-in program Washington Journal, remains cut off to those who don’t have a traditional cable or satellite service, limiting its reach to to an increasing audience of cord-cutters who have moved away from those offerings.

Given the channel’s coverage of events that are offered free in other places, getting placement on streaming pay TV services like YouTube TV and Hulu will likely be extremely difficult for C-SPAN. Those providers tend to favor adding channels from existing partners instead of forging new agreements with programmers that are likely to drive up subscription costs.

Hulu, for example, offers all of its paying subscribers access to ABC News Live, a 24-hour streaming-only news network. (Hulu and ABC News share common ownership) YouTube TV recently added NBC News Now, a similar streaming channel programmed by Comcast that lives alongside other networks carried by the service, including NBC, USA Network and Bravo.

This uphill battle is one reason why C-SPAN is also weighing the possibility of offering its on-demand library as a free, ad-supported streaming service similar to Fox Corporation’s Tubi or Comcast’s Xumo, Kiley said. Currently, the company is receiving guidance from its cable partners like Comcast who have entered that space.

Thanks for reading and supporting The Desk. If you have a question, comment or news tip, send a message by email or text, or connect on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Also, check out our new membership service The Desk: Pro Access for exclusive reporting, news scoops and in-depth analysis.