The cable broadcasting pioneer talks about his book, Sundays at Eight—a collection of unpublished interviews and stories from his 25 years of hosting on C-SPAN.
C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Brian Lamb, a true TV visionary. He’s the founder and driving force behind C-SPAN which turned a camera on our democratic process. He’s now written a new text about one of C-SPAN’s long-running programs which he hosts. It’s called “Sundays at Eight: 25 Years of Stories From C-SPAN’s Q&A and Booknotes.”
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A rare conversation with C-SPAN founder, Brian Lamb, coming up right now.
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Tavis: As the founder of C-SPAN, Brian Lamb is truly a television visionary. Every week for a quarter of a century now, “Sunday Night at Eight” on C-SPAN he has maintained a unique oasis in television.
During that time, Lamb has hosted an in-depth, hour-long conversation with authors and thought leaders. He’s now written about those years in a new text called, appropriately enough, “Sundays at Eight”: 25 Years of Stories From C-SPAN’s Q&A and Booknotes.”
Brian Lamb, I have been honored to sit with you on that set once or twice and I’m finally, after all these years, friend, delighted to have you on this set. So, welcome.
Brian Lamb: Thank you. And, you know, “Sundays at Eight” makes sense ’cause we’re both from Indiana and we used to do things in a simple way. We have River Road, Canal Road, Main Street.
Tavis: Yeah. You beat me to it. I was about to brag about the fact that I’m from Indiana just like Brian Lamb is. So take that. Go, Hoosiers. Well, I can’t say “Go Hoosiers” ’cause Brian went to Purdue and I went to Indiana.
Oh, we’re not even going to have that conversation tonight for those who know the rivalry between these two schools. But I’m honored to have you on this program.
Lamb: Thank you.
Tavis: And let me just say – before I get to the text, let me just say – and I know there are millions of Americans who feel this way and I want to talk about how you actually pulled this off. But there are millions of us who I know thank you and are indebted to you – and I know how modest you are.
There’s a team of people that pulled this off, I know, but you were the visionary, you were the leader. You brought us C-SPAN and I think of all of the things that we have had access to now for these years because of C-SPAN.
So let me just start by saying thank you for this public service that you brought us all these years ago and start by asking how did that happen? Just take me back to how C-SPAN came to be.
Lamb: Well, thanks for thanking me, but really these cable television executives that funded it in the beginning were the ones that took the chance. And there was no reason to do it because we’re not making any money for anybody. We’re a nonprofit. We started because they were looking for new ideas, new programs.
You know, the satellite went up, had Home Box Office and Showtime looking for new things and they gave me a chance to pitch this to them. And a guy named Bob Rosencrans and his sidekick, Ken Gunner, were in the cable business and they said we think this will work. We’ll get behind you.
Tavis: A bit of trivia history. There was another network that I used to work for called BET that started the same year.
Lamb: Yeah, absolutely, Bob Johnson.
Tavis: BET and C-SPAN. Bob Johnson started the same year. Of course, he sold his for $3 billion dollars [laugh].
Lamb: We didn’t get quite to that point [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah. Bob made $3 billion with a B when he sold BET.
Lamb: I think he told me once he invested $15 grand and he got $3 billion.
Tavis: He and John Malone were the two that started BET. But with all due respect to BET, they have not given us the kind of enlightenment and insight that C-SPAN has given us for all these years.
So there are more things in life – there are some things in life that are worth more than money, which leads me to ask what do you think the value of C-SPAN has been all these years to the American public discourse?
Lamb: I think, more than anything else, is that people have the time to complete a thought. They do here on a show like this, but, you know, there’s so few of them left. But more importantly, I think people that live far away from Washington can watch the government process, watch their elected officials, watch the media do their thing.
And if they’re interested – a lot aren’t, as you know – we have done many shows together called the “Tavis Smiley Presents” and those were great Saturdays when you would bring 28 guests onto a stage and I’d sit there all day and watch it [laugh].
Tavis: You had nothing better to do [laugh]. Sorry, Victoria.
Lamb: It was terribly interesting, as you know, to watch 28 of your guests sit there and talk about the issues.
Tavis: How hard was this? I’m going to get to the book, I promise. I got time. How hard was this to get C-SPAN off the ground? And I ask because, for a long time, you were fighting Congress because they did not want their proceedings to be televised, covered.
Lamb: Well, in fairness to the Congress, there was a group that did want them televised. They were often younger at the time. Now they’re – I’m 72. They’re my age. And a lot of them – you know, since we started, there are only five that will be left in January. 430 have changed since then. But in the early days, people were just afraid of television in Congress.
You know, the Senate used to have all their hearings on, but the House didn’t. Sam Rayburn wouldn’t allow cameras in the chamber, in their hearing rooms. And everything kind of changed and the House came along and said people know who we are. We better do something. So we kind of came together at the same point.
You know, looking back on it, it didn’t seem like it was hard. But I came out of Indiana. I didn’t have a name. Nobody really cared and so I fell on my face, so what? And the industry was willing to take a chance and we’re still here.
Tavis: So there were some who wanted it, most by and large did not. You had to fight that. Eventually, you won the fight to get all the proceedings in the House and the Senate covered. What did it say to you then?
I think I recall a quote from you around the time of this fight. But what did it say to you then that the public business, that those who were doing the public business, were afraid for us to see that in public?
Lamb: And some of them still are because you know what Washington’s like. Once you get there, it’s a kind of insular world and it’s a buddy system. They didn’t particularly want to share that with the public. They wanted to spend the money and not have people see exactly how it’s done.
It said to me at the time, though, when they said yes – and Tip O’Neill, believe it or not, said yes…
Tavis: Former House Speaker.
Lamb: And he was one of the old guys, you know, and he didn’t have anything to gain by it because he was Speaker. It said to me that they were ready to put the House on the map because the Senate was the best-known body in the United States. And the House pulled itself up in the eyes of a lot of people beyond where it used to be.
Tavis: I sometimes laugh when I’m home at night and I’m watching C-SPAN, as I do all the time.
I think about those days when there were members who didn’t want these proceedings to be televised and how now they run to the floor in the evenings when they can give those speeches oftentimes to an empty chamber because it’s late at night. But they’re seen around the world on C-SPAN talking about whatever issue they’re passionate about.
Lamb: The best example of that was Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. He’s now deceased and was, at the time, the longest-serving member of Congress and the Senate.
He was totally opposed to the idea of television and, after seven years, he led the charge to put cameras in the Senate and then, in a very interesting way, probably spoke more on the Senate floor than anybody else. He knew he was on television.
Tavis: He was a good orator too, though.
Lamb: Yeah, he was. He was a very interesting man.
Tavis: Robert Byrd was an interesting guy. He could make his point. The Supreme Court, still that other branch of government that will put out audio recordings of the oral arguments, but still no TV cameras in the U.S. Supreme Court.
You’re now 72, as you said earlier. Do you think in your lifetime [laugh] that that will change? Will there ever be cameras inside the U.S. Supreme Court?
Lamb: I’m only laughing because I don’t know how long my lifetime is [laugh]. I don’t know. You know, right now they’re dug in. This group doesn’t want it and it’s going to take somebody to realize that the education factor is the important reason to do it.
That’s the only reason to do it, so that people can see – it’s a magnificent institution. People can see how it operates.
Tavis: What about the notion, though, that these Justices don’t want lawyers playing to the cameras when they’re making these oral arguments?
Lamb: You know, I’m not sure that’s the reason. I think it’s partly the reason, but the Chief Justice has that gavel and he can gavel them down. And if they do something out of the ordinary, it’s going to embarrass them, not going to embarrass the court.
I think the court’s more worried than anything about people like Jon Stewart. I think they’re worried that they’ll get sound bit to death and they’ll be made fun of more than anything else.
If the whole thing was televised and we would televise it, they would be all right. But in this world that we live in, the First Amendment says uh-uh. You can’t guarantee everything’s going to be televised.
Tavis: I’ve been honored – as I said earlier, I’ve been a guest on your programs, and even dating back to when you were hosting “Washington Journal” and that was a long time ago.
But I loved the “Washington Journal” program in the mornings and I have been amazed over the years – since you mentioned Jon Stewart -I’ve been amazed over the years at how nonpartisan, this network, has been able to remain in a world where everything is partisan. Everybody’s got a dog in the fight.
So C-SPAN is there first. Now you’ve got FOX News, you got MSNBC. You got all these other entities that are out there. And even on “Washington Journal,” you got the Democratic phone line, the Republican phone line, the Independent phone line.
I mean, you guys must bend over backwards every day to not be critiqued for leaning to the left or leaning to the right. How do you balance yourself every day?
Lamb: Well, in my case, I’m brain-dead [laugh]. The rest of them just put a lid on it. No, it’s just our job. We believe so strongly in our mission and we just stay out of the way.
Tavis: But it’s the news networks’ job too and they still get criticized, sometimes legitimately every now and again, for leaning a certain way on a story.
Lamb: But, you know, it’s their job only because they say it’s their job. It’s really their job to do whatever they want to do. We have just said in our mission statement that we’re going to be out of the way. We’re not going to get involved in it.
I think, in some ways, I like it when people tell me what they’re thinking. I would rather have it that way than masquerade as if you’re totally unbiased and objective. Because, you know, you’re in both worlds. You do this and you’re out there in the activist world. It’s not easy when you’re an activist.
Tavis: How do you – how does C-SPAN – and I know there’s a much deeper answer to this question. There’s a team of 300 people that figure this out. But it’s not just that C-SPAN is unbiased in its coverage, but how do you go about making decisions about what to cover?
Because you got Democratic events, you got Republican events, and at the end of the year, somebody’s going to look at your schedule and audit whether or not you guys were even-handed in the kinds of events that you covered beyond the kind of coverage you actually give it.
Lamb: We have three networks. We have a radio station that’s heard nationally. We now have the internet. We have the podcasts and all that stuff. You can get to almost everything and 75% of a daily decision is fairly obvious. We don’t get a lot of complaints.
I mean, people have learned over the years that we’re going to get there if we can and they’ve learned how to use our system. Because you don’t do something on Wednesday if you want coverage from us. You’re better off if you do it Monday, Friday or Saturday.
As you know, when we covered your events on Saturday, there are usually not a lot of live events to cover. It’s a good day for demonstrations. It hasn’t seemed to have been a real problem. I mean, maybe I’m – got any wood around here?
Tavis: Yeah, that’s wood right there, yeah. Cheap wood, but it’s wood, yeah [laugh]. Don’t knock it too hard. It may fall apart [laugh].
What is your sense – and C-SPAN, again, has done a lot of good work in this regard, maybe more than any other broadcast entity that I’m aware of. But what’s your sense of citizenship involvement, citizenship engagement?
Because one of the things that C-SPAN exists for is to empower us, is to enlighten us, with the information that we need about how the government works. You guys bend over backwards to do that and yet, with all the work that you and others have done to give us the intel that we need, one could look at the data and be really depressed that you’ve done a horrible job.
You’ve given us all these hearings and all this coverage and we still don’t engage our democracy in the way that other nations do.
Lamb: Let’s make it as basic as possible. When you were growing up around Grissom Air Force Base, you would be the guy that watched C-SPAN. You would have done it when you were 16 years old because you were interested in public service, public affairs.
That’s what we see all the time, are the people that gravitate toward being interested in the whole public service thing. They start watching us when they’re kids. Their dads, moms, sit them down and say, “I want you to watch this.” And if you get 10% of the country, that’s 30 million people. That’s the group that leads anyway. So it’s worth doing.
It’s just – the good news for us is – and our cable industry has allowed us to do this – we don’t have ratings or stars or ads or anything. They underwrite it at about $65 million dollars a year and we keep the costs down, and we can keep doing it that way.
Tavis: That’s what it costs to run C-SPAN? $65 million a year?
Lamb: It’s about as much as you do in a week.
Tavis: Yeah, please [laugh]. You see the whole crew is laughing [laugh]. Control room’s cracking up too. I can hear the control room laughing at that, Brian [laugh].
Lamb: And then I lose it [laugh].
Tavis: The value and the importance, to your mind, of C-SPAN covering these events uninterrupted is what? And I ask that because there are certain days that I really don’t want to hear commentary. I’m one of the guys that sits on some of these Sunday morning shows from time to time and offers commentary.
But even I at times don’t want to hear commentary. I just want to hear the president’s speech or I want to hear whatever I’m looking at without all of the commentary, and C-SPAN is the best at that. But what’s the value you think to C-SPAN doing that without that left-right commentary?
Lamb: Our value is in the middle of all the others and what they do, the commentary and that. We are there when you want more of it, you want the whole thing. I don’t know how you watch it, but you and I probably watch it the same way. I don’t sit there all day and, you know, veg out on it.
I get up early in the morning and I’ll flip it on and I might get 20 minutes of something. And that 20 minutes just opens the door up here about something that’s going on. And I think it’s the way most people watch it. They’re not sitting out there three hours watching all the hearings.
But when it is your interest, it is your issue, you can see the whole thing. And it’s an advantage not only to the Congress, it’s advantage to the witness, it’s a real advantage to the public.
Tavis: This is a question – I’m going to ask this at the risk of you perhaps knowing the answer, but not telling me anyway. I’m going to ask because I’m curious. Does the C-SPAN’s data tell it where it’s most popular by region in the country?
And I’m only asking that because it would seem to me that wherever the smarter people are, they’re probably watching C-SPAN. So I’m wondering if Southern California is like on the list of the areas that watches C-SPAN the most.
Lamb: We don’t know for sure, but I can tell you this. When we started as a network, I believe, back in 1980, I mean, ’79, then ’80 when we did our call-in shows, Los Angeles was the number one call-in show city.
Lamb: No, it was amazing. And San Diego. Los Angeles, San Diego and all around this area. I was always…
Tavis: That’s weird to me too because when I’ve been a guest on “Washington Journal” over the years, I crack up at phone calls from California, from Oakland, from San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles. Because when I’m on “Washington Journal” at seven a.m., it’s 4:00 on the West Coast.
Lamb: I know.
Tavis: And those calls are still coming in from the West Coast at four in the morning.
Lamb: And they’re intelligent [laugh]. But I’ll tell you, though, when we started, the newspaper in this country that did the most work telling our story was the Los Angeles Times.
Lamb: It was amazing. Jack Nelson was the bureau chief and it wasn’t just Jack Nelson. It was David Cook and it was Lee Margulies and all these folks for some reason or other caught the idea and used to write it up all the time.
Tavis: That’s for all my friends east of the Mississippi who think that only smart people live east of the Mississippi. We got something to offer here as well, y’all.
Let me go now to your book which I’m so delighted that you put together. How did “Sundays at Eight” come to be? And how did that become the program that you wanted to put your signature stamp on?
Lamb: We’ve done – this is the ninth book we’ve done. And about seven of those have the transcripts – you’re in one of them – where we take my questions out and just make a narrative out of it.
This isn’t meant to be the 41 chapters, the absolute best 41 in 25 years. It just commemorates the fact that this show every Sunday night for one hour has always been there and always a different show for 25 years.
There’s never been a repeat and it’s just, you know, one of those things that we thought we’d celebrate by putting it out. And also, some of the stories are just fantastic.
Tavis: I remember when I first appeared on “Sundays at Eight,” the producer telling me that we only have you on one time. I was like, well, what if I write 20 books? She said you will be on one time [laugh].
Lamb: It’s true. But I just want you know we’ve changed the rules. So the next time you have a book, you have to come back.
Tavis: I’ll be there this summer [laugh]. I got a book about Dr. King coming out this summer.
Lamb: Yeah. I heard you talking about it with Larry King…
Tavis: Yeah, we had a good time, yeah. But I thought that was fascinating because what I liked about that is that it democratizes that decision, democratizes the book business. And I say that as an author who knows a bunch of other authors who’ve written a lot of high-quality stuff.
One of the things I take pride in and my staff takes pride in is a lot of people that sit in this chair who wouldn’t otherwise get an interview like this on national television ’cause I think they have something to say in their book that none of the other shows would necessary book them on.
So I thought it was a wonderful exercise in democracy to only let you on one time ’cause there’s so many good books that are written.
Lamb: That’s why eventually it was the urging of Susan Swain and Peter Slen, you know, in our company who went to the 48 hours of books on the weekends. And the more and more we’ve done of this, the less and less important one show is. I still do it, so I think it’s important to me ’cause I learn so doggone much every time on a Sunday night.
But what we’ve tried to do over the years is just keep expanding so a lot of these different voices can be heard. ‘Cause you’re right. It’s odd what makes it and what doesn’t make it in the big networks.
Tavis: So tell me more about – I’m sure the viewers want to know more about Brian Lamb in terms of your reading habits, your reading schedule. I know you don’t step into these shows without having read the material. So how did you become such an avid reader? Must have been that great Purdue education.
Lamb: It actually wasn’t. I mean, the Purdue education was fine, but I wasn’t ready to learn when I was at Purdue. I went in the Navy and I went to Washington and, once I got involved in this, the thing that really lit the match under me was the bicentennial of the Constitution back in 1987.
And I served on a little committee for the communications stuff and was given a book by – and said to read it – called “Miracle at Philadelphia” by the Chief Justice retired at the time, Warren Berger. And it was a fantastic story about the writing of the Constitution in September of 1787.
That’s when I got into it. I remember getting on a train going to Philadelphia to go to Independence Hall ’cause I’d never been there. So I learned that there’s a lot more in these things than you can get almost anywhere else.
Tavis: What is the particular joy – you mentioned a moment ago that you love to learn even at your age now…
Lamb: I’m old [laugh].
Tavis: You said that. I didn’t. You love to learn.
Lamb: I don’t feel old [laugh].
Tavis: What’s the joy for you, though, in sitting there week in and week out talking to people about all kinds of subject matter? What’s the takeaway for you?
Lamb: I don’t know. I came out on a plane today. I had five and a half hours on the plane and I never stop reading the newspapers. It’s just a kick, I mean, to learn as much as you can learn about everything. That’s how I got to know you by asking you questions. Sometimes you are interesting [laugh].
Tavis: Oh, Brian Lamb got jokes [laugh]! He’ll be in L.A. all this weekend, two shows nightly. Tip your waitresses, two drink minimum. Brian Lamb, all weekend in Los Angeles [laugh]. Now you made me lose my train of thought.
Lamb: I’m trying [laugh].
Tavis: Did you ever expect – did you imagine in the early days that C-SPAN really had a chance at making it?
Lamb: I didn’t have any expectations. And when we started the first year or so, we were only on eight hours a day, five days a week, and we just had the House. That was it.
I did think – you know, literally growing up where we did in the Midwest – coming to Washington and seeing what it was like, I did think that people far away from Washington would be interested in it enough to make it work.
And, again, the beauty of what we’ve been able to do with our support from the cable industry and now from the satellite people is that they underwrite it and we don’t have to show them numbers. You know what? It’s hard.
Tavis: Oh, don’t I know.
Lamb: I mean, it’s just hard and if you had to show numbers in what we do, we wouldn’t have made it because there are days when there are not very many people watching. Then there are other days when there are a lot more people, depending on – actually, you know what was our most successful…
Tavis: I was about to ask you. What’s the most successful?
Lamb: The president is always the most successful. President Obama has been seen more, you know, on YouTube. That’s how we know how many people are watching, in the millions. The second most successful are comedians.
The White House correspondents are just over, you know, and the comedians come in and they always – they’re right up there, the numbers. Here’s the president, here’s Seth Rogen. Here’s the president, here’s Seth Meyers. You know, here’s – name them.
Tavis: That doesn’t surprise me.
Lamb: When are you going to do a standup?
Tavis: Oh, come on. No, no, no, no [laugh]. Not going to happen.
Lamb: We could work it out for next year and get you to…
Tavis: No, not at all. How many more of these do you have in you? I ask that because we all know that – I was a bit sad, but I thought it was very gracious of you to do it the way you did and when you did it and you guys handled it beautifully.
2012, you stepped down as the CEO running C-SPAN every day. They still give you an office? You got a closet in the back somewhere?
Lamb: I have a closet…
Tavis: You got a closet in the back?
Lamb: It’s a wonderful place that, you know, nobody even knows where I am. It’s hiding back there.
Tavis: So how many more of these do you have in you?
Lamb: Well, honestly, I’m not sure. But when we submitted the chapters for this book, it turned out we had so many that they cut it in two. So we may have another one in two years.
Tavis: That wouldn’t surprise me.
Lamb: We’re going to do a biography with that theme. You get your biography out; we’ll have to get you in it.
Tavis: Yeah. That could be interesting.
Lamb: But you have to tell all.
Tavis: No, no, no, and I know you. So I’m going to end this conversation on this note right now [laugh]. Can I just say, I have enjoyed this – I enjoyed this much more than sitting across from you, being queried by you. I have enjoyed this immensely and, believe me, I have waited a long time to get you out here in L.A. to get you on this set.
But I mean this sincerely when I say that you have done a great service to the nation, you and all the good people at C-SPAN, for all of the stuff that we get a chance to see that we otherwise would not see on any of these broadcast networks. I thank you for that.
Lamb: And I thank you for being there ’cause we wouldn’t have a network who we didn’t cover Tavis and everybody else we’ve covered.
Tavis: Well, thank you. The new one from Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN. It’s called “Sundays at Eight: 25 Years of Stories from C-SPAN’s Q&A and Booknotes.” Brian Lamb, good to have you here.
Lamb: Tavis, my pleasure.
Tavis: My friend.
Lamb: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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