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CNN executive Sam Feist to lead C-SPAN as new CEO

The long-time Washington journalist will be tasked with evolving C-SPAN for the digital age — something that should have happened a long time ago, but didn't.

The long-time Washington journalist will be tasked with evolving C-SPAN for the digital age — something that should have happened a long time ago, but didn't.

Sam Feist. (Courtesy photo)
Sam Feist. (Courtesy photo)

C-SPAN has tapped a long-time CNN journalist to serve as its next chief executive officer, the network confirmed this week.

Sam Feist recently held the role of bureau chief at CNN’s Washington office. He previously served as CNN’s political director and the vice president of the network’s programming. Feist joined CNN in 1991, the same year the network went mainstream for its coverage of an American bombing campaign at the start of the first Gulf War.

Feist starts at C-SPAN in June, where he will assume the CEO role from departing co-chief executives Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain. Both held the co-CEO position for more than a decade.

“Our democracy needs C-SPAN now more than ever,” Feist said in a statement. “I look forward to working with C-SPAN’s extraordinary and dedicated team to expand the network’s reach and meet new audiences wherever they are.”

C-SPAN is in the midst of a slow but necessary transformation. Launched in the 1980s, C-SPAN has offered live coverage of hearings, speeches and floor votes from the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. Today, its programming is carried across three cable channels and various online streams. It produces just a handful of original programs, including “Washington Journal” and “Book TV.”

For much of its history, C-SPAN was funded by the cable and satellite providers that carried the channel. At its beginning, it offered the first real-time glimpse at the political and business dealings of Washington — which, on some occasions, included seminars and interviews with cable and technology executives who were plotting the course of the future.

That future is now, but C-SPAN has not kept it. It is still largely dependent on cable and satellite funding, which has started to dry up as consumers move away from traditional pay TV for streaming.

In 2014, C-SPAN changed the way it distributed video streams online, moving web simulcasts of its three cable channels to a “paywall,” forcing users to authenticate with a username and password tied to their cable or satellite subscription in order to watch them. Coverage of the House and Senate — which is provided by live feeds originating from cameras operated by Congress itself — was still free to access.

The strategy was meant to preserve the symbiotic relationship between C-SPAN’s most-prized viewers and the pay TV companies that fund the network. It didn’t work. Consumers simply turned to other networks for their political coverage. Free upstarts like ABC News Live, CBS News Digital and NBC News Now, along with live video streams from the Washington Post, the New York Times, The Hill and others, offer substantially similar coverage as C-SPAN — without a cable or satellite subscription.

As of 2022, C-SPAN was available in 70 million homes, down from the 100 million just one decade prior. That number is almost certainly lower, given the pace of cord-cutting over the past two years. While consumers are increasingly moving toward streaming cable-like alternatives — including YouTube TV, which counts more than 8 million customers — most of those services refuse to carry C-SPAN (DirecTV Stream is the outlier).

The network has found some success on social media, thanks in part to a 40-something editor who figured out that adjectives draw attention on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But efforts on social media still are not generating quantifiable returns — C-SPAN still needs money.

Earlier this month, the network tried something that might have been unthinkable in the past: It promoted an editorial written by former Federal Communications Commission Chairperson Tom Wheeler, casting streaming services — primarily, Google-backed YouTube TV — as “anti-democratic” because they refuse to fund and carry C-SPAN’s multiplex networks on their connected TV platforms. In doing so, the network that won’t even allow its own on-air hosts to introduce themselves over concerns of impartiality broke with tradition by exercising its voice, siding with the ever-eroding traditional pay TV industry and against all-things “Big Tech.”

This is the house that Feist will inherit next month, when he transitions away from his role at CNN and joins C-SPAN full-time. He was selected from a pool of 100 prospective candidates, and chosen because of his “deep respect for C-SPAN, his leadership skills, his knowledge of Washington and his digital transformation bona fides,” the outgoing co-CEOs said in a statement.

At C-SPAN, his digital transformation skills will be put to the ultimate test.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 10 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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