Lamb chops issue

C-SPAN topper lobbies against must-carry

WASHINGTON — In a sea of high-gloss, high-energy electronic journalism, C-SPAN chairman and CEO Brian Lamb offers an earnest, almost prudish devotion to neutrality on every issue from tobacco legislation to Monica Lewinsky, but what few realize is that Lamb is also an active lobbyist at the FCC and on Capitol Hill.

Next month the Federal Communications Commission is expected to begin a proceeding on whether cable operators should be forced to carry the digital channels many TV stations will begin broadcasting Nov. 1. Lamb is already taking an active role in the debate.

In the last several weeks Lamb has visited the offices of three of the five FCC commissioners to lobby on the issue. He adamantly opposes “digital must-carry” which he says will force cable systems to drop C-SPAN or C-SPAN 2 in order to make way for broadcasters’ digital channels. Last Monday, Lamb lobbied the office of commissioner Susan Ness, who is taking the lead on the issue, and he plans to visit the remaining two commissioners, including chairman Bill Kennard, as schedules permit.

Lamb is not only concerned because his network loses eyeballs every time a cable system turns off C-SPAN — the decision could also have a serious impact on his network’s bottom line.

C-SPAN charges cable systems a nickel a month for every subscriber exposed to the network. While a few hundred thousand lost subscribers wouldn’t hurt C-SPAN too much, Lamb’s prediction that “millions” of C-SPAN homes will go dark could have a severe impact on the cable network’s $33 million budget.

“I’m not asking for favors,” Lamb said in an interview with Daily Variety. “We are asking to be treated equally, and we haven’t been for the last five years.” Even though the policy was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year, Lamb insists must-carry is not fair. “There is favoritism in the system, and it is hard to understand why.”

On May 29, Lamb sent a letter to 49 members of Congress that proclaimed, “Let me be absolutely clear on this point: If digital must-carry becomes law, C-SPAN and C-SPAN 2 will go dark in millions of more American households.”

It’s hard to imagine a cause closer to the heart of every senator and representative than C-SPAN’s non-stop coverage of all things congressional. Lamb closed the two-page letter with, “I hope we will have an opportunity to discuss this in person before too long.”

The letter was targeted at the House and Senate leadership, the commerce committees and the judiciary committees. In addition, Lamb sent copies of the letter to offices of all five FCC commissioners. C-SPAN is even using its Web site to drum up support.

So far Lamb has not lobbied individual members of Congress, but he told Daily Variety that he plans to make personal visits to lobby for his cause. Lamb concedes his contact with members of Congress could pose a problem. “They could do a favor for you one day and ask you for a favor the next,” said Lamb.

One of the favors Lamb could easily grant is some face time on one of his two networks. Before he embarked on his lobbying campaign at the FCC, Lamb sat down on May 8 and did consecutive live interviews with all five commissioners from the FCC’s M Street headquarters.

During the interviews some callers asked questions that were related to the must-carry issue, but Lamb never brought it up himself, said C-SPAN’s corporate vice president and general counsel Bruce Collins. “We made it a point in that format not to bring up any issues which we had a direct involvement in,” Collins said.