Forty years ago, C-Span went live with its first public broadcast from the House of Representatives chamber, giving Americans a television-shaped window into how lawmakers behave in the ornate room where history is often made.
Ushering in the C-Span era on March 19, 1979, was Al Gore, then a representative from Tennessee, who had pushed for the network’s access to the Capitol.
“From this day forward,” Mr. Gore said at the time, “every member of this body must ask himself or herself, how many Americans are listening to the debates which are made?”
Since that day, when C-Span debuted with four employees, the network has become a mainstay in American politics. We spoke with Susan Swain, one of C-Span’s two chief executives, about the birth of the network, Washington’s initial resistance to being caught on camera and how the network has adapted to the social media age.
This interview with Ms. Swain, who joined C-Span three years after it started, has been edited for brevity and clarity.
In the moment that Al Gore approached the lectern in the House chamber and C-Span went live, what changed in American politics?
The fact that people could actually see their elected representatives in their living room — and now on their phones — was a fundamental change. In the past, people might pull the lever every two years for their member of Congress and, if they were super engaged, might read a newsletter that came in the mail or go to an occasional town hall meeting.
This meant that any time you were interested, you could watch what your member of Congress had to say. Prior to television in Congress, the only time that members really got attention is if they had big names like Kennedy or if they did something outrageous, either positively or negatively, or if they were a member of the leadership.
Initially, there was a lot of resistance in Washington to the idea of C-Span broadcasting House floor debates. And the Senate didn’t allow C-Span in for another seven years. Why was there such resistance?
Members had concerns that the cameras would be swinging around and taking pictures of members while they were not focused attentively on the debates or — heaven forbid — closing their eyes for a second. Or today, perhaps they might be sending out a tweet.
One of the ways this finally came to bear was that they created a compromise that members could live with. The compromise was that the House of Representatives, the speaker’s office, would control…