C-SPAN fans and First Amendment advocates are irate.
Since last fall, the plug has been pulled on C-SPAN in dozens of markets around the country, affecting an estimated 10 million viewers.
While many Americans flip past the ever-present image of congressional leaders droning on behind lecterns, millions of others consider C-SPAN's two channels unique, uncensored windows on the often-Byzantine workings of democracy.
"People here are furious," reports Bob Hunnicutt, cable administrator for Tucson, Ariz., where C-SPAN was deep-sixed by the local cable carrier. The reaction was unprecedented, he adds. "I've been in cable administration for 10 years now and never had this kind of response. We had 600 calls in December."
For 18 years, C-SPAN, which primarily covers the House, and C-SPAN2, allocated to the Senate, have served as a telescope for average citizens on the way Washington operates.
But C-SPAN is being nudged off the tube in the highly competitive cable-TV industry. A string of federal communications rulings and laws are also adding pressure.
C-SPAN was created by the cable industry as a public service during an era of fewer channels. A nonprofit network that receives no federal tax dollars, C-SPAN gets 6 cents per subscriber from the cable industry for its budget, which last year totaled $29.8 million. Since it generates no revenue, it has become a game hen for cable-market foxes.
C-SPAN still has the vocal commitment of the cable industry, but it is uneasy nonetheless. "The only problem is if this thing starts to unravel and they started throwing us off of every system in America," says Brian Lamb, C-SPAN's founder and CEO.
Plans are on hold to expand to three other channels that would cover additional congressional hearings and press conferences around Washington. "The danger of this is if no one speaks up and cares and if it's only the moneymaking vehicles at the front of the line ... then we lose big time and the public loses big time," Mr. Lamb says.
Nationally, seven cable systems have reduced C-SPAN's carriage. Only Denver-based cable giant Telecommunications Inc. (TCI) has dropped it altogether in a half-dozen markets. The company has also reduced coverage in 46 markets. Consumers have little recourse as distributors monopolize individual regions.
In fact, TCI is the company most responsible for C-SPAN going dark across the country. It is also its biggest single distributor.
Some analysts blame financial pressures at TCI for the reductions. Company president John Malone is cutting costs and reportedly attempting to generate $750 million to $1 billion this year to stabilize the cable monolith, which is $13 billion in debt.
TCI acknowledges C-SPAN reductions are unpalatable but promises they are "temporary." Bob Thomson, a TCI vice president, says that technological developments will soon alleviate the problem. "Our company has said we will have the ability to offer digital TV to about 5 million customers by the end of the year. In the next two or three years, the vast majority will have access to digital TV," he says.
Industry experts confirm digital transmission will offer a dramatic increase in cable capacity but are skeptical about Mr. Thomson's timeline. A more realistic time frame, they say, is closer to 2010.
Thomson says TCI is less to blame for C-SPAN reductions than are trends among consolidating industry giants far bigger than TCI. "We are seeing the evolution of four or five programming consortiums: Viacom, Time Warner, NBC, Disney, Fox, etc. All of these groups have enormous advantages that accrue to them by virtue of studio ownership or broadcast network ownership or both," Thomson says.
As a result, cable distributors are having to make room for the hottest new 24-hour networks these giants are producing.
These revenue-generating heavyweights include Animal Planet, The Cartoon Network, and Home and Garden Television. The programs pay large up-front fees for distribution, thereby displacing others, such as the Weather Channel, Chicago's Superstation WGN, and music video channel VH1. Even MTV was dropped recently from the line up in Des Moines, Iowa.
Exacerbating the problem are federal regulations that have trickled out of Washington over the past five years. The 1992 Cable Act, for example, includes provisions for equal access. "Must carry" stipulations mandate access for small, local stations. C-SPAN has challenged the law, which the Supreme Court is expected to rule on this spring.
C-SPAN supporters are up in arms about the net effect. They argue it's one thing to cut an entertainment show that fails to compete, but quite another to cancel a program that provides a public service.
What is the importance of the network sometimes lampooned by Saturday Night Live as the network with only one camera? "I think what is lost is not only a counterbalance to the traditional filtered media but open access to the process," says Paul McMasters of the Freedom Forum in Washington, a group that focuses on First Amendment issues.
Surveys show that 98 percent of C-SPAN viewers are politically active. That is certainly true in the case of Buffalo, N.Y., resident May Polakov. The feisty former schoolteacher was miffed last October when she turned on her television only to find C-SPAN2 replaced with a cable-access station. She began circulating petitions, an effort that led to partial restoration. "If you feel it is something you really want, go out and get it back," she says.
Ultimately C-SPAN's most formidable opponent may be a fading brand of philanthropy that the cable industry touted in the 1970s. The industry emphatically denies that.
"But given the current economics, they realize they have to do what they have to do," says Price Colman, Denver bureau chief for Broadcasting and Cable magazine. "It does no one any good to be justifiably proud of a service if the economics don't work. I suppose the pride is still there but the economics aren't."