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Viewpoint: YouTube TV carrying C-SPAN makes no sense

C-SPAN's own business decisions are keeping the network from being offered on streaming TV platforms.

C-SPAN's own business decisions are keeping the network from being offered on streaming TV platforms.

The front façade of the U.S. Capitol appears in a 2010 photograph. (Photo by Nicolas Raymond via Wikimedia Commons)
The front façade of the U.S. Capitol appears in a 2010 photograph. (Photo by Nicolas Raymond via Wikimedia Commons)

Forty years ago, you might be hard-pressed to find anyone in the country who regularly watched the political affairs network called C-SPAN, let alone anyone who actually knew what it was.

Today, the brand is as synonymous as Xerox (copy machines) or Scotch tape (adhesive tape) — it’s a stand-in for any kind of live television coverage related to the hearings, votes and political affairs of Congress and other government agencies, to include the White House.

If it’s political in nature, it’s probably on C-SPAN. But not everything aired on C-SPAN originates with the networks.

Take, for instance, hearings from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Colloquially, political aficionados and even journalists refer to the coverage as originating from “C-SPAN cameras,” even though they don’t. The House itself controls both the cameras and the feeds that originate from that chamber of Congress, and leaders in the House can cut off C-SPAN’s access to that feed whenever they want.

Such was the case in 2016 when Rep. Paul Ryan, then Speaker of the House, ordered the live feed to be stopped during a sit-in protest led by other federal lawmakers. C-SPAN and other broadcasters were no longer able to rely on the House feed for their coverage. Instead, they pivoted to live streams from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter (now X) that were produced by the lawmakers and their staffers themselves — which anyone could view online, and for free.

The situation brings into focus an important point: Much of the programming that C-SPAN carries on a daily basis doesn’t actually originate from C-SPAN. The network produces very little of its own original programming. Much of what the network carries that people want to see — live political hearings and votes — are easily found on other platforms. Federal agencies and legislative committee stream hearings and votes on YouTube for free. Other broadcasters and publishers, like NBC News and The Washington Post, redistribute those same feeds via YouTube and other services for free.

Few shows airing on C-SPAN are actually produced by the network itself, and the networks original programming — including “Washington Journal” and “Book TV” — pull in lower viewership numbers compared to the live political affairs events that are widely available beyond C-SPAN.

So, it is a bit curious that, this week, former Federal Communications Commission head Tom Wheeler published an opinion piece in The Hill singling out Google-owned YouTube TV for its lack of carriage of C-SPAN’s three channels.

Wheeler correctly notes that when C-SPAN was founded more than 40 years ago, it offered a groundbreaking glimpse into the inner workings of the federal government, uncensored and in real-time. It was a novel approach that people have since taken for granted because, well, C-SPAN is no longer alone in offering that coverage.

Still, Wheeler criticizes Google for not carrying C-SPAN’s channels on its YouTube TV platform at a time when streaming services are chipping away at cable’s lead. He calls the decision “baffling and anti-democratic,” and suggests Google has more than enough money to cover whatever bill C-SPAN charges for its channels.

To that end, Wheeler posits that C-SPAN would cost YouTube TV less than 7 cents per subscriber to carry. Assuming YouTube TV does not grow beyond its current count of 8 million subscribers, Wheeler posits that C-SPAN would cost Google no more than $6 million per year to carry the network on YouTube — which, in Wheeler’s view, Google can afford, since it reported $15 billion in service-related revenue last year.

Wheeler said Google’s decision not to carry YouTube TV seems to be “because they can.” He notes — incorrectly — that other providers like DirecTV, Dish and Verizon Fios “recognized their public interest obligation to include C-SPAN in their bundle of channels.”

But what Wheeler doesn’t say is that cable and satellite providers fund the not-for-profit organization that operates C-SPAN as an independent entity. By virtue of their funding, those platforms are allowed to carry the three C-SPAN channels — and they have no reason not to.

In its early days, C-SPAN was not just a political affairs network. It also gave the cable and satellite industry direct access to lawmakers and consumers to promote their latest initiatives and lobby key influencers on matters directly related to their businesses. The C-SPAN video archive is a treasure trove of early press conferences, industry events and Congressional hearings featuring key cable and television industry executives like WTBS and CNN founder Ted Turner, Fox Corporation’s Rupert Murdoch, TCI Cable leader John Malone and Dish Network’s Charlie Ergen. C-SPAN was not just a way to inform lawmakers and cable subscribers about the political goings-on in Congress — it was a way for the cable industry to offer insight into its views on everything from cable rate regulations to “must-carry” rules and how the Internet was going to disrupt everything.

Now, the Internet has disrupted everything — and C-SPAN has not caught up with the times. The network is still mostly dependent on contributions made from the cable and satellite industry — and those contributions are coming in slower as more Americans escape high pay TV bills by “cutting the cord” in favor of price-flexible streaming services.

Over the past few years, C-SPAN has addressed this trend in a few way. For the most part, their efforts have been feeble attempts that are designed to reach digital consumers while still placating the cable and satellite companies.

In 2014, C-SPAN locked down the streaming versions of its channels, requiring viewers to prove their status as a cable or satellite subscriber by using an associated login from a partner provider. (House and Senate votes and hearings are not locked behind the cable paywall.) That remains unchanged today: The growing number of ex-cable and satellite customers cannot watch C-SPAN programming like Washington Journal or Book TV unless they are willing to shell out over $100 per month for other channels they may not want to watch.

In late 2022, C-SPAN inked a novel distribution agreement with Level News, bringing the multiplex cable network to cord-cutters for the first time. The service charged $6 a month for access to C-SPAN and a handful of other channels, including Nexstar Media Group’s NewsNation, Bloomberg TV and France 24 English. In an interview with this reporter for StreamTV Insider, Level News founder John Tantum said C-SPAN recognized the need to break free from the cable bundle and reach consumers on other platforms if the network wanted to survive.

“They recognize the opportunity and the need to expand beyond cable and satellite,” Tantum told me. “They observed the same trends that we all did — that cable and satellite TV subscribers are declining every quarter. And, as long as they’re strictly tied to those distribution platforms, that’s not good for their subscriber numbers, either.”

Executives from C-SPAN agreed.

“We do need to try new things,” Rachel Katz, the Affiliate Relations manager at C-SPAN, told me in a phone interview. “For a long time, 100 percent of our revenue was subscriber base…we peaked when cable peaked, and the numbers are down. We have to be forward-thinking, and get in front of the audience that still wants and needs C-SPAN and the coverage that we’re doing and the journalism that we’re doing.”

Katz told me C-SPAN’s distribution agreement with Level News was a step in that direction. If it worked, the service that charged $7 a month for three channels that apparently cost less than 7 cents per subscriber to carry should have infused C-SPAN with a ton of cash at a time when it needed it the most.

It didn’t work. Level News shut down late last year. The service drew a small, loyal base of subscribers, but it wasn’t enough to cover operational and marketing expenses. Turns out, C-SPAN alone was not enough to draw the masses.

Now, C-SPAN appears to be taking a page out of another book: Demonizing Big Tech for their business decisions. The network’s social media profiles shared Wheeler’s editorial this week, which claims Google and YouTube are “removing an unfiltered window into the goings-on in Congress, the White House and other parts of the government.”

Of course, that’s nonsense. YouTube carries — without restriction — the same live House and Senate feeds that C-SPAN offers. And while Wheeler posits the cable and satellite companies as supporting C-SPAN at a critical time, he fails to note that some cable and satellite platforms are making their own business decisions that could prove to be detrimental to C-SPAN, too.

For instance, while Dish Network financially supports C-SPAN and carries its three channels on their satellite platform, the C-SPAN multiplex is nowhere to be found on Dish’s streaming service, Sling TV. Customers of Sling TV also cannot use their credentials to watch C-SPAN’s channels on the C-SPAN website or apps. While Verizon Fios does carry C-SPAN on its platform, Verizon has signaled its intention to wind down its Fios TV business and is actively pushing customers toward — wait for it — YouTube TV.

Those two companies are not alone: Comcast’s Now TV offers a handful of entertainment, lifestyle and news channels for $20 a month, delivered over the web through the same Xfinity Stream app that is used by Xfinity TV customers to watch their channels online. But, unlike Xfinity TV, Now TV doesn’t offer the C-SPAN channels, either — even though Comcast financially supports the network.

Like Google, the companies have developed or promoted streaming cable TV replacements — and, also, to not carry the C-SPAN networks on those platforms. (DirecTV is the lone pay TV company that makes the C-SPAN channels available to streaming-only customers.)

But Google is the enemy because, well, it’s “Big Tech,” and anything Big Tech does can be deemed “baffling” and “undemocratic” if their business decisions shine a light on the failing revenue models of well-known established brands like C-SPAN. There is no reason for Google to charge YouTube TV customers one penny more for programming when the cost of programming is already high (YouTube TV charges $73 per month for broadcast and cable channels — and that price is likely to go up over time) and when most of C-SPAN’s live coverage is readily found somewhere else.

Instead of demonizing Google and other Big Tech firms, C-SPAN should look for ways to partner with them. It should look to other broadcasters for ways to achieve this.

Several yeras ago, Fox Corporation made what some might have called a “baffling” decision to spend $440 million acquiring free streaming TV platform, Tubi. Turns out, that investment has more than paid for itself, with Tubi becoming a bigger revenue generator than Fox’s own flagship broadcast network — yes, even during a Super Bowl year.

Earlier this year, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) worked with AMC Networks to convert the domestic version of its international BBC News network into a free, ad-supported streaming channel. The change was part of a broader strategy at the BBC to cast a wider global net with its entertainment and news programming at a time when its main revenue generator — a TV tax charged on British households to support its domestic radio and TV channels — is likely to go away in a few years.

C-SPAN could do the same, though it would mean breaking up with their long-time sugar daddy, Big Cable and Satellite. The brand could explore a number of ways to bring its C-SPAN programming to streaming viewers at an affordable rate — or even for free — while leveraging the benefits of free, ad-supported streaming platforms (including YouTube!). While those efforts are somewhat complicated by C-SPAN’s not-for-profit status, organizations like C-SPAN are alllowed to invest or fully own for-profit subsidiaries. There is nothing to prevent C-SPAN from incorporating a for-profit subsidiary and developing a standalone streaming services that licenses C-SPAN’s channels for carriage (does that sound familiar?). It would be a win-win for C-SPAN and for viewers, and is less likely to rankle cable and satellite partners who are already not carrying C-SPAN on their next-generation streaming platforms.

Wheeler is right to raise the issue that C-SPAN is dying because of streaming, but he is wrong about the reasons why. It is not Google’s responsibility to provide a lifeline to C-SPAN. Big Tech is not killing C-SPAN — it is C-SPAN’s own executives and their unwillingness to fully embrace the inevitable.

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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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