HomeInvestmentC-Span Faces a Budget Crisis

C-Span Faces a Budget Crisis

A C-Span truck at Miami-Dade College in Miami.


Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Congress may be spending more money than ever, but the same can’t be said for the station that provides live coverage of it. C-Span expects its revenue to sink below $50 million this year for the first time since 2005. This bodes ill for an invaluable service to American democracy.

Created as a nonprofit in 1979 by a consortium of cable-TV operators, C-Span began by offering gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House. Seven years later it added Senate proceedings. Revenue came, as it does today, primarily from a share of monthly fees: roughly 6 cents from each connected home. In the mid-’90s, DirecTV and other satellite competitors started carrying the channels for the same per-customer fee.

Now C-Span faces two distinct obstacles: reach and revenue. Cord-cutting, the shift away from cable and satellite, has reduced C-Span’s distribution through those outlets to roughly 70 million homes from about 100 million in 2014. With 98% of its revenue tied directly to these markets, C-Span’s annual take has fallen by about $20 million.

What can be done? In addition to selling coffee mugs and T-shirts, C-Span runs ads on its website, mobile app and YouTube channel. The primary feeds on cable and satellite, however, remain ad-free.

“There’s been some inconsistencies,” co-CEO

Susan Swain

says in an interview. “We’re kind of dipping our ankles into the pond here and gone from a company that has never had to do any of this for 40 years, to having to rethink our relationship with our affiliates and our relationship with our ultimate customers, while preserving the central mission of what we do.”

C-Span should create a corporate underwriting format, similar to PBS. It has never sought government funding, insisting that such a move would be anathema to its nonpartisan mission. And C-Span hasn’t asked viewers to become patrons—yet. Sources say appeals for public donations will begin soon.

Management is also desperately seeking deals with streaming services such as Hulu Live, operated by


and YouTube TV, owned by Google, which would add several million dollars in revenue. Talks haven’t gotten far, despite what would seem to be a clear-cut public-service opportunity for the companies involved.

Meanwhile, about 25% of U.S. homes have free access to C-Span’s primary coverage of Congress via the internet, even though they don’t subscribe to traditional cable or satellite. That’s approximately 35 million homes from which C-Span gets no revenue. At 6 cents per customer per month, it amounts to about $25 million in potential revenue each year. Notably, much of this broadband service is supplied by the very media firms, including


and Cox, that are on C-Span’s executive committee.

C-Span no longer helps these companies as it did in 1979, when cable operators needed to impress local communities with their civic-mindedness in hopes of winning exclusive franchises. For the public, however, it remains a vital service—perhaps now more than ever.

Americans need a window into the operations of government, and C-Span needs more than coffee mugs, T-shirts and good intentions to keep it open.

Mr. Funt is author of “Self-Amused: A Tell-Some Memoir.”

Wonder Land: The U.S. system of government is mired in sludge after decades of ‘doing something’ to solve problems, only to make things worse. Images: AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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Appeared in the June 15, 2022, print edition.

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