Read: The solemn absurdity of Trump’s impeachment trial
Because there’s nothing entertaining about public servants doing their job properly—and when that’s what’s on C-SPAN, for most people it isn’t hot. It’s just how things are supposed to work and what citizens have a right to expect. It’s the breakdowns, the partisan rancor, the malfeasance, and the mismanagement that make for must-see TV. In normal times, a qualified ambassador’s Latin-laced testimony about foreign-aid disbursement would be of interest mainly to nerds, professionals, and professional nerds. Instead, Americans devoured Gordon Sondland’s “explosive” account of a Ukraine-aid quid pro quo.
And a network that insists on airing entire hearings in full, without the talking-head chatter and screaming chyrons of cable news, is at the center of the action. When I visited C-SPAN last week, everyone I asked about the network’s reputation for dullness seemed used to the critique—and either resigned to or fully in on the joke. The day before I caught up with him at the network’s office, Jeremy Art, C-SPAN’s social-media senior specialist, had tweeted a bit from the talk-show host Stephen Colbert about late-night impeachment arguments. (The tagline: “Indulge your impeachment fantasies with C-SPAN3 After Dark.”) I later spotted the political editor Steve Scully hunched over a desk, watching a Conan O’Brien skit from the previous night on his phone. (In it, an argyle-sweatered control-room boss amps up the C-SPAN team: “Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump: This is our goddamn Super Bowl, okay?”)
In his office, C-SPAN’s communications director, Howard Mortman, dug up another O’Brien clip to show me, from the 1995 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, as Nadler’s face beamed from four different screens next to him, each showing the action on the Senate floor. It’s Mortman’s favorite C-SPAN joke: “I have an announcement for those of you watching tonight’s event live on C-SPAN. For God’s sake, it’s Saturday night! Go outside, meet a woman. Come on!”
The irony of this being C-SPAN’s moment is that its cameras aren’t actually in the Senate chamber right now, and neither are any other news-media cameras. C-SPAN can and does cover every grimace and rant of House and Senate hearings—complete with speaker shots, reaction shots, witness shots, milling-about shots in committee rooms—but debates and votes on the actual floors of the House and Senate are a different matter. With rare exceptions, such as the State of the Union address, the House and Senate operate their own cameras in the chamber, with C-SPAN and other news outlets picking up the footage.
To hear C-SPANners tell it, the cinematography is lacking—and they could do it so much better. “We would love to be able to show the reactions of senators as they are listening to arguments,” Ben O’Connell, C-SPAN’s managing editor, told me. “We would’ve loved to have been able to show as each senator stood up and took their oath.” The point is not just aesthetic, but philosophical too. “We believe that it’s very important that journalists are behind the camera and deciding what people see in the room and how they see it, rather than the government,” O’Connell said.