C-SPAN sticks to its straightforward roots amid convention hype

CLEVELAND — If there's an overriding media reality at the Republican National Convention, it's the exhilarating (at times draining) pace of change and the heretofore little-known outlets that scream "NEW!"

And then there's C-SPAN. Knock on wood.

When it comes to broadcasting and live-streaming, everybody and his or her mother seem to be going live from somewhere: Townhall Media, Twitter, SiriusXM, Breitbart, CBS, NBC, Pacifica, Salem, The Young Turks, Gray, Radio One, it goes on and on. Veteran ink-stained wretches tote cameras, posting live interviews and commentaries on Facebook and other platforms. The days of far-off deadlines are gone.

And then there's C-SPAN.

It's a refreshing constant that has adapted to technological revolution while doing what many in mainstream media struggle with: maintaining a set of crystal clear values. There's no juggling of being serious and cool, of maintaining "integrity" and chasing larger audiences with more "populist" fare, of perhaps fooling themselves by producing serious analysis intermingled with unadulterated clickbait disguised as cultural trend tales.

"Keep in mind that what we are doing in 2016 is the same general thing, using the same general principle, we did in 1984 when we covered our first convention," says Steve Scully, one of a cadre of longtime stalwarts who doubles as a show host and director of political coverage. "It's to give people a front-row seat to the convention."

It's just like the rectangular ad boards inside the train I took into the city Tuesday declare: "EVERY MINUTE OF THE CONVENTION — C-SPAN."

The tone and tenor of coverage remains straight and understated and a fine companion to a new universe of competitors. So if you went to Politico Tuesday morning, you'd find an alluring piece, "Inside the GOP’s Shadow Convention: Banking on an Election Day loss, the party’s elders and elite lay the foundation to rebuild post-Trump."

Meanwhile, C-SPAN was offering "RNC Officials Hold News Conference." Taken together, they'd be part of a satisfying mix and what's a feast of content (albeit much-redundant and at times hyperbolic) on a great political ritual.

"The technology has changed, we're HD now, for example, but the basic mission is the same," says Scully. "What makes that significant is that all these other organizations are trying to redefine what their mission is while we have stayed loyal to our convictions."

There are 55 employees here, which is about the same as in the past. By comparison, little-watched but well-heeled Bloomberg TV has more than 100. Yes, 100. It's got money to burn given the coffers of its boss, Michael Bloomberg.

So, typically, most of the media was elsewhere late Sunday afternoon (in no small measure due to the Baton Rouge police murders) as C-SPAN aired live the press conference of Donald Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. It's not that Manafort was more important than Baton Rouge. It was just that C-SPAN was sticking to its knitting.

Funded by the cable industry, C-SPAN is so notoriously even-handed, it's long been caricatured on "Saturday Night Live" as a synonym for "boring." Yet, of course, that also bespeaks the huge respect in which it's held. It's also a synonym for straight and honest.

It can now cover anything live. It's on the web and satellite radio. It's on smartphones. It's streaming live on Facebook. It's reaching more people but with the same basic product, devoid of most of premeditated shouting and tension that's become the editorial paradigm for many others.

Sitting in their typically austere, bare-bones workspace at a convention center a ways away from the actual convention arena ("The Q"), there was no rush to find the latest alleged newsmaker or the next pundit to fill airtime. There was a willingness to let events unfold at their own pace, filling in the gaps with understated discussion or relevant historical tape. It continues to be a daily civic lesson.

Neither Scully nor his colleagues are naïve. The competition is fierce, the audience fragmentation unabated. There are other sources for at times similar programming. But there are also no dumb pop-up ads on its website, no commercials during its coverage. The coverage is not a Trump-centric means to gin up profits, as one has at times suspected is partly the case with some TV networks.

"We know what we do best," he says. "We cover the events, let viewers watch the events, reach the audience where they are through phones, through computers, on TV, on radio, on laptops.

So that means covering all the speeches, even those far away from primetime. In 2004, there was a young congressman from Wisconsin. C-SPAN was the only TV outlet to cover it. The same long ago with then-first-term congressman Mike Pence of Indiana. It's all there in its impressive video library.

"It's obviously as competitive as it has ever been because there are so many ways to get this coverage," Scully said. "But when you think of gavel-to-gavel coverage, and the branding we are about, every four years we have people coming to us for more than Senate or House coverage."

Like everybody else, they're working harder. There is the search for relevance. It is conscious of its longtime viewers but also the industry that subsidizes it.

As for Scully's overall summary of the gathering here: "This is not your father's convention. It's very different. Trump is an entertainer, putting together a production. It's more a TV production than convention."

And, gavel to gavel, at least one network will be there, news or not.

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    James Warren

    New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S. News & World Report. Former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief, Chicago Tribune.


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