Brian Lamb: C-SPAN not immune to the digital threat

C-SPAN would seem to have as secure a future as any news operation could have. Thirty years after Brian Lamb began shopping around his off-the-wall idea for a public affairs network funded by the cable industry, it’s hard to imagine a media landscape without C-SPAN’s rich offerings on TV, radio and the Web.

But Lamb says C-SPAN will be buffeted by the digital revolution just like everyone else. Despite successful work in recent months on a new long-term plan that helps ensure the network’s future, Lamb told an audience at the University of Southern California that C-SPAN’s core business could be affected.

“I see the handwriting on the wall at our network,” Lamb said. “You gotta’ be a little more agile … a little more nimble, to survive.”

Lamb delivered the James L. Loper Lecture in Public Service Broadcasting on Thursday at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, at a lunch sponsored by the school’s

Beneath the about-to-open congressional visitors center, he said, are TV control rooms – 13 on the Senate side alone – that will direct video of hearings across Capitol Hill. Describing these facilities as having been built “under the darkness of night,” Lamb said his suspicion is that this congressionally directed video will be sent directly to the Web. “You can tell what that means for us,” he said.

Lamb also noted that the refurbished American History Museum now has Webcasting capabilities that will allow the museum to stream events there to its own site.

Each of these examples would mark an end run around C-SPAN’s bread-and-butter, Lamb said. “I could envision a time when they’ll stop calling us… It’s a changing world and we better wake up and smell the coffee.”

At the outset of his remarks, Lamb said that while 30 years ago he had a sense of where the industry was headed, it’s different now. “I have no idea where this is going,” he said.

But Lamb also talked about ways new technologies will create opportunities in the future. He noted the multimedia work done by the Anchorage Daily News in the recent trial of Sen. Ted Stevens – a trial Lamb often attended. And how a single blogger, Alaska lawyer Cliff Groh, offered an entirely different take on the trial proceedings.

“I think we’re going to be a lot better off than a lot of people in journalism rare thinking right now,” he said.

Lamb offered a hint about where he thinks journalism today may be missing the boat. He observed that the questions asked by members of Congress during hearings are often better than those asked by journalists – and that the members “really rip, like journalists never do.”

Similarly, he said, because it is unregulated, C-SPAN never censors callers. “We let it rip.”