A quiet revolution took place 41 years ago this month — March 19, 1979, to be exact. Not in some tiny banana republic or sub-Saharan jungle … no, this revolution came through the thin copper wiring of America’s cable networks. Strange new ideas, political leaders from far-off places, sergeants-at-arms, incidental-motions-to-suspend-the-rules and much, much more were now coming directly into the dens and rumpus rooms of the American heartland. In the wee hours of the morning, at least, you know, that time when you can’t quite get to sleep and everything else is informercials or dead air?
Because this revolution was a little TV network we call “C-SPAN.” Beloved by both politics nerds (like yours truly) and mom-and-pop hotel chains for whom it makes up 25 percent of the “FREE CABLE” package they advertise via slowing dying neon lights, C-SPAN brought political sausage making right to the breakfast tables of the people. The people, of course, responded with thunderous yawns of disinterest, but … more on that later.The end of the 1970s was a strange era, brimming with the promise of progress and the thrill of possible global thermonuclear destruction. NASA decision makers, reeling from their inability to impress ladies by telling them all about putting men on the moon, decided if they let ladies go to space, too, maybe they’d go out with them: Thus America welcomed our first generation of female astronauts. Religious leader Jim Jones invented the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” his most lasting contribution to Western civilization. The Shah of Iran decided he might like to explore being the Shah of someplace new, like Morocco or the oncology ward of a Mexican hospital. The nation of Rhodesia changed its name to “Zimbabwe Rhodesia,” because everything was just fine, and they were just trying a new thing, and plenty of normal people change their names mid-career, like Prince or Ron Artest, right?
On the entertainment front, James Garner shocked America by starring in a popular remake of “Maverick,” though his deteriorating knees prevented him from riding a horse so the producers gave him a Pontiac Trans-Am instead. But that wasn’t quite right, so they set the whole thing in contemporary Los Angeles, named it “The Rockford Files” and called it a day.
Elsewhere, a jovial orange cat named “Garfield” nestled in the lap of America’s newspaper pages, prompting that too-skinny generation of disco-gyrating, cocaine-experimenting Americans to settle down and get addicted to lasagna instead.
Having been inspired by an ad in “Grit” Magazine, President James Earl Carter climbed on the roof of his Washington, D.C. mansion and installed some solar panels. He was so woozy coming down the ladder, however, that he gave away the presidential yacht and the Panama Canal and even winter heating for the White House. He was busy preparing to give away the Democratic nomination, our embassy in Tehran and thousands of good American tailoring jobs, too (what with all those comfy-looking sweaters he kept wearing).
But eventually Teddy Kennedy tag-teamed with Ron Reagan and stopped him, leading to a decade of Reaganomics, the death of the sweater, and the Democratic Party swearing they’d never not have their act together at the start of a primary season ever again.
No one much noticed Carter’s foibles and “malaise” (a French term for keeping the thermostat way to low, but translating in English as “whackadoodleism”): Watergate left Americans in a state of disaffected handwringing about politics, only pausing their handwringing long enough to comb their amazing Farrah Fawcett-styled hair or change the oil in their Trans-Ams.
This bothered a few intelligent and civic-minded folks, who, having conservatively-cut brown hair, and driving sensible Japanese imports, knew that other Americans must re-focus on our shared political issues, lest the intelligent, civic-minded sorts have nothing interesting to chat about at cocktail parties.
So they surveyed the major TV networks, thought “Boy — Walter Cronkite, Frank Reynolds, David Brinkley — these guys are just loudmouthed hacks with fancy graphics.” Thus began their effort to bring politics to the American people directly and unfiltered, like a tall, cool glass of water, scooped up from some stagnant ditch.
They got together, raised an intelligent and civic-minded $25,000, and began the most exciting experiment in TV history — reality TV. Of course, no one would call it “reality TV” for another two decades, when it was filled with fake famous people, fake drama and fake plastic surgery and altogether less real than the hair color of most of those Farrah-Fawcett copying Americans.
No matter. On March 19, some fine intern flipped the switch on history, and live on camera was the United States House of Representatives. The first politician featured on C-SPAN was a pro-gun, anti-abortion Southern conservative representative; his name was Al Gore — a bit different than how he’s remembed from the Clinton administration. Gore declared the network “... a solution for the lack of confidence in government.” (Another possible way to restore confidence in government might have been to elect fewer charlatans and stop giving away globally strategic infrastructure we paid to build, but who can say for sure?)
Dozens of viewers tuned into that first broadcast — some of whom were not even related to Al Gore — and dozens more have become regular C-SPAN watchers over the past four-and-one-tenths-decades.
During that time, C-SPAN has given us a wealth of great viewing — from Jim Traficant to Cynthia McKinney and far beyond, C-SPAN has given us so much delightful craziness that it could cause the island of Guam to tip over and sink into the ocean.
Sometime in 1986, a viewer on a Sunday morning call-in show noted that Americans have a bicameral legislature, and asked just where the bicamera (Latin for “other camera”) was that was supposed to be showing Americans that Senators are vastly more reasonable and intelligent than mere U.S. Reps. Within minutes, another fine intern located and then flipped on the switch for “CSPAN-2.”
Things went on exactly the same as ever until 2001, when Bush v. Gore made our entire population (285 million people, plus several dogs and cats) stars in a reality TV show and we came very close to electing neither Bush nor Gore, but some elderly Floridian named Chad. In these heady days, CSPAN-3 (“the Tres”) was launched, turning the camera on the most consistently embarrassing part of the American political process — we the people.
Yet the C-SPANs still get beat in the ratings by — well, everything. And if more people don’t watch, how will confidence be restored in our government? This is important — both Farrah Fawcett and the Pontiac TransAm are dead, dead, dead; NASA still hasn’t sent anyone else to the moon; we’re running out of distractions.
Thus I offer my unsolicited plan for how the network might vault itself to primetime prominence and thus bring aid and succor to our weary body politic.
First thing — Americans love sports. Time to write a memo to all employees directing them to pronounce “C-SPAN” in such a way that it rhymes with “ESPN.”
Next, up, take advantage of modern technology’s ability to make “deep fake” videos. Wags have long said politics is just “show business for ugly people” — why not just change the faces of our homely House members and unsightly Senators with those of beautiful models? Americans love to watch beautiful people on TV, and while we citizens of the S.C. First District elected a Grecian-statue of a chap to Washington … most other polities in our nation did not.
And before you ask “Won’t that confuse the voters when the Congressperson returns to the district to campaign?” I say of course not — what self-respecting congressman spends valuable facetime at home with their constituents when they could be schmoozing with their donors in D.C.?
Third (and this one’s simple), C-SPAN has created a C-SPAN sized hit out of “Book TV,” programming featuring a wide range of intelligent and interesting authors, book festivals, and the like. Time to turbocharge things with “Trashy Book TV”; follow it up with “Beach Reads” (live from South Florida) and, if the budget allows, a quiz show where the presenter asks James Patterson trivia questions about books he’s “co-authored.”
Next, the station that pioneered “reality TV” could stand a little more spice in its primetime lineup. What would inform the Average Joe more about how things work in Washington — an hour of proceedings on the House floor, or watching cocktail party drama on “The Real Lobbyists of Bethesda, Maryland”? So many possibilities — follow fighting over a bill on “Committee Survivor”; join a congresscritter out-of-session with “American Idle”; view the finger-pointing concerning deficit spending on “Project Runaway”; go behind the scenes of opposition research with “(Paying off the) Teen Mom” … the mind boggles.
No matter if they adopt my fine ideas or not, my many warm wishes to the folks at C-SPAN: They’ll doubtless be around for another 41 fine years, or to the end of the American Republic ... whichever comes first.