TV at its Realest

Three cheers for C-SPAN. At a time when the once-mighty alphabet networks are fighting audience erosion with spurious docudramas, tabloid news-scandal shows, and spizzed up evening news, C-SPAN is happily celebrating its 20th anniversary in the reality news business.

When the cable public affairs channel started televising the House of Representatives in 1979, some critics doubted its staying power. One comedian compared it to Andy Warhol's long movie of a man sleeping, saying the only difference was that with C-SPAN the person sleeping would be the viewer.

How wrong that was! C-SPAN has extended its reach from the original 3.5 million households to 75 million households. It has added coverage of the Senate, Supreme Court, White House briefings, interviews with political leaders and commentators, book-and-author segments, and call-ins from viewers. And now there are radio and internet versions. C-SPAN's 45-foot school buses with mobile TV production facilities are reaching students and teachers and involving local government officials and civic leaders across the US.

As for that comparison to Warhol's sleeping-man film, the comedian got it backward. C-SPAN has come to be known for its devoted audience of political junkies who stay awake nights in order to watch a subcommittee hearing or big-city mayor.

For intelligent humans there's something fascinating about reality that no docudrama can match.

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