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The Novak Zone

Aired January 31, 2004 - 09:30   ET


JEFF FLOCK, CNN ANCHOR: Before there was "The Real World," "Survivor," or even "The Osbournes," there was reality TV Washington- style. In some sense, that was maybe the real reality TV.
CNN's Robert Novak now talks with the C-Span founder. His name is Brian Lamb, in this week's edition of The Novak Zone.


ROBERT NOVAK, HOST: Welcome to The Novak Zone. I'm Robert Novak at the studios of the C-Span network in Washington, D.C., on Capitol Hill, with the founder and president of C-Span, Brian Lamb.

Brian, I've got a Brian Lamb question for you. What is C-Span?

BRIAN LAMB, FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT, C-SPAN: Well, C-Span is a lot of things, including 25 years old in March. Three networks devoted to letting people see events that have something to do with politics and our culture for themselves, from start to finish, and make up their own mind.

NOVAK: You started this network 25 years ago with $25,000 seed money. Money aside, could you start a network like this today, considering the combination of networks and television and the cable business?


NOVAK: Why not?

LAMB: Well, it doesn't make money for anybody. The cable television industry started this network. I was the working stiff out front, but even having started it, it still is very tough when channel capacity is scarce and when you don't have a bottom line. In this society, people don't have as much respect for you in the business world as they do when you're out there trying to make money.

NOVAK: You started this with gavel-to-gavel in the House of Representatives, Senate followed suit. Still, that issue top priority, covering Congress. How has that affected the way Congress operates, the way the members of Congress act, how they dress, how they talk?

LAMB: It's hard to know. We have never studied it. I think more than anything else, if you know you're going to be seen in some place away from the House floor and the Senate floor it's got to have some impact on you.

More than anything else, I think -- it's strange, it's the little things. You're able to be seen by your own family. You're able to be seen downtown, say, if you're on the Hill, you can be seen in the White House. I think those are far more important to members of Congress sometimes than the big picture, which we're really interested in, and that is, that the average person far away from Washington can be involved in the whole system.

NOVAK: You don't have -- you're not -- because you're not a commercial network, you don't have ratings to tell you what people watch. But I've read many times that the most popular programs are the "Book Notes" program, which you preside over, and the "Washington Journal" in the morning, and special C-Span presentations. Is that really the -- what people tune into C-Span for, rather than to watch the Senate drone on for hours?

LAMB: No, I think that actually (UNINTELLIGIBLE) our most popular events are the hearings. That's where people, I think, get the most out of Washington, D.C. The House and Senate floor are only important to you when there is an item on there that affects you directly. And if you're always there, people know they can go there when it's something to do with their lives.

NOVAK: You never mentioned your name on C-Span. The other people who are what I would call anchors don't mention their name. They do show their faces. You don't have hoods on the people.

LAMB: Yes.

NOVAK: But would you think that would be a good idea for CNN if the CNN anchors and hosts did not mention their names? Do you think that would create a little more objectivity?

LAMB: I don't know. I doubt it very much. You're in a whole different business than C-Span is in, and I think that's the hardest thing in television, is that people find it on their television set and they say, Well, you're not like the others.

This is a great copycat business. It's hard to be different, because people are always saying, The others are doing this. Why don't you do this? I think that people in the business should give their name. We just don't want to be the center of attention, and so therefore we've stayed away from the personality thing.

NOVAK: Not only don't give their name, but they don't explain what is going on. Would it be a good idea if you had one of your experts telling -- just telling people, now, what they're doing now is this, during a quorum call?

LAMB: Probably. And I say that gingerly, because none of us feel that we're expert on what goes on on Capitol Hill. We've decided that during the House and Senate times, just to let it roll. Yes, we probably could do better with the audience if we explained it. But we've just stayed out of the way. And our industry and our audience has never demanded it, so it's probably just as well we leave that alone.

NOVAK: Who are your viewers? Are they people who really know what's going on? And if that's the case, why do you ask questions? Your most famous question, I guess, was when you asked Martin Gilbert, Churchill's biographer, what is bugging me. Who are they? Are they people who really need that kind of questioning, or are they people who are pretty savvy?

LAMB: Some of them are very savvy, and some of them are like me. You have to ask those questions because you don't know the answer. And, you know, I'm not afraid to ask those questions. They sound stupid to very, very intelligent people who are well educated. The average person, though, knows -- you know, and I consider myself very average. There are a lot of things we don't know.

So you just assume a baseline that, ask those simple questions, and everybody is on the same playing field.

NOVAK: As a devoted C-Span viewer, I'm always most interested in your special projects. This is one of the great, the grave sites of presidents. What -- who would ever think of having a series on where presidents are buried? And yet you wrote this fascinating book, published this fascinating book. It was published in Grant's Tomb.

And I love the of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which a lot of people thought was really boring, these long debates. I thought they were fascinating. Do you have any more of these kind of special projects coming up?

LAMB: Well, this is an election year, so we're staying away from special projects. But I think in the next year, we'll talk -- I mean, everybody has a great idea for us, you know, cover the Civil War battles, cover the generals, cover -- you know, we haven't decided. But those are really a lot of fun to do, and most people, again, need the basic information, love watching them, because they learn so much about history.

NOVAK: And now the big question for Brian Lamb, president and founder of the C-Span network.

Brian, this is your 25th anniversary coming up. What is ahead for C-Span in the next 25 years?

LAMB: It's a great question, Bob, because we don't really know. Our industry has been so supportive of us that you tend to think it's going to be here forever.

This kind of thing is not an enormous rating success. So it will be interesting 25 years from now whether an industry exists that will continue to support this public service the way it's been supported over the last 25 years. I'm not really sure. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed that people who are going to be voting in the future will have all these resource available to them.

NOVAK: Brian Lamb, thank you very much.

LAMB: Thank you, Robert.

NOVAK: And thank you for being in The Novak Zone.



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