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Capital City

C-SPAN Has Been Walloped by Cord-Cutting. Inside the Network’s Unlikely Fight for Eyeballs.

The venerable Washington cable network of respectful debate and government procedure has to slug it out for social media views. It’s complicated.

Jeremy Art recently discovered a potentially click-generating social-media innovation: the adjective.

Art, 39, runs social media for C-SPAN. As such, he’s a key conduit between the venerable public-affairs network and a demographic that’s increasingly crucial to its future: People who don’t get their congressional hearing coverage on TV, and instead find it on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.

C-SPAN desperately needs to reach these people because it has been walloped by cord-cutting, a phenomenon that has slashed its revenues and audience while hammering the cable companies that fund the network. The brutal environment has lately forced major changes on the 43-year-old Washington institution, including staff cuts and once-unthinkable business deals. Formerly in nearly 100 million homes, the network’s TV offerings are now in fewer than 70 million. C-SPAN’s brand new app, its website and its social media channels will need to make up the difference — but, compared to the cable channels, all face much more competition.

Which is why, at an establishment that didn’t used to have to slug it out for eyeballs, employees like Art are now the focus of serious managerial attention. “We’ve pushed Jeremy to be faster and better and do more tweets because we saw what it got us,” says Peter Kiley, the network’s vice president for affiliate relations and communications. “And when you see who retweets us, who quotes us, how many likes — it puts us right in the middle of the game. … Everyone recognizes the importance of being relevant.”

The challenge for Art is that “being relevant,” in social media terms, sometimes involves behaviors that are off-brand at his resolutely nonpartisan employer. Twitter loves incendiary language, abject trolling and exhortations to watch as some political figure ABSOLUTELY EVISCERATES a hated rival. C-SPAN, on the other hand, does not. So instead, Art is limiting himself to baby steps.

Like sometimes using adjectives.

An early test involved a tweet with video footage of Rand Paul and Anthony Fauci getting into it at a hearing. “We used the word ‘heated’ to describe an exchange,” Art says. “I had stayed away from that. But we’ve had a lot of discussions inside — how can we say something other than, ‘See the complete exchange between Senator Paul and Doctor Fauci?’ How can we say, ‘This is something you should watch’? Should we use the word ‘heated’ or ‘passionate’? We settled on the word ‘heated.’ I’ve used it a few times.”

Of course, it can be risky. During the Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmation hearings earlier this spring, Art used the same word to describe an encounter between the judicial nominee and an irate senator. “I said it was a heated exchange between Lindsey Graham and Judge Jackson, and there were a lot of people saying, this is an angry man and a very calm, collected judge. So we thought, should we take it down?”

Not wanting to bring more attention to the controversy, they decided against it. But the conundrum remained. “Listen, we’re going to share 53 clips this week. How do we say, ‘This one isn’t just about how she ruled?’ Do we say, ‘Watch Lindsey Graham get angry?’ But then his office would call and say, ‘He’s not angry, he’s passionate on behalf of his constituents.’”

How did an advertising-free nonprofit that hasn’t even used Nielsen ratings come to sweat about how some hearing-room video performs on Twitter? It begins with the business model. Until a few years ago, C-SPAN — underwritten by the nation’s cable television providers — was living the dream: Roughly six cents of every monthly cable bill in the country went to the network, a guaranteed income stream that that helped the company grow beyond the Capitol’s feed of gavel-to-gavel congressional coverage to include broadcast footage of political events around the country, a radio platform and its own proprietary books and history coverage, with enough left over for educational ventures like the C-SPAN bus.

But the last decade has pounded the cable industry, and C-SPAN along with it. Revenue from cable fees has tumbled from upward of $70 million at peak to what is projected to be less than $50 million this year, according to Kiley. They’ve had to trim the sails: There was a buyout last year, as staff size fell from roughly 235 to about 200. The bus was quietly mothballed.

More interestingly, cable providers’ troubles have also forced a certain amount of culture change at a Washington institution that once seemed insulated from the grubby business of commerce. Kiley is pushing to get C-SPAN on streaming services such as YouTube TV and Hulu Live. There are now advertisements on the website, the YouTube channel and the app. There’s a fun podcast spelunking through gems available in the C-SPAN archives. They’re hiring their first chief digital officer and thinking about ways of licensing content and possibly cultivating donors a la public radio. “We’ve looked at everything we could possibly come up with,” he says.

He really does mean everything: “We sell hats and T-shirts,” Kiley says. “If you are the kind of person who downloaded the app and watches three or four things a week, we think you’re the kind of person who might be interested in the C-SPAN store.” (For the record, a “C-SPAN & CHILL” fleece blanket will set you back $49.95, a “FUTURE C-SPAN FAN” onesie $19.95, and a C-SPAN stemless wine glass just $17.95.)

On the content-creation side of the shop, meanwhile, the culture change involved something more elemental: new definitions of competition.

A clip of a Mitch McConnell floor speech can circulate on an infinite number of social media accounts. The work involves making sure people see it on C-SPAN’s. Art and his social media team now post constantly, live-streaming feeds but also cutting them into shareable video nuggets, well aware that there are others racing to cut up the same content and show it to audiences on their own accounts.

Sometimes speed is the key variable; other times it’s quality. That’s what happened on the day of Art’s greatest triumph. In the summer of 2020, Florida Rep. Ted Yoho infamously called New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “b----” on the steps of the Capitol. A media frenzy ensued, and Ocasio-Cortez (“I hope it’s OK that I call her AOC,” Art says) eventually took to the House floor.

“I remember as she was giving that speech, knowing that this has the potential to be very big,” Art says. “But I knew at the time, I had to wait until it was done. I saw other people sharing out the first few minutes. I thought, I want people to be sharing this but also I wanted to have people say, watch the whole thing here.” When he finally tweeted the entire 9-minute, 54-second clip, “it just took off.” (The copy Art wrote to accompany the clip, incidentally, was just an excerpt from her speech — no adjective included.) C-SPAN’s video was viewed 16.4 million times on Twitter, more on the other platforms. With 106,000 shares, it was the network’s biggest post of the year.

Another cultural change in the attention economy involves more picking and choosing. By definition, gavel-to-gavel congressional coverage treats all hearings and speeches as equal. But in the social space, you have to keep an eye on what has a following.

“I probably share more of McConnell and Schumer, obviously, than of AOC and The Squad,” Art says. “But if she’s on the committee on a hearing, I’ll watch a lot of the stuff because she just says things in different ways and people may want to see it — maybe younger people or people who don’t follow that much of politics. I know which members of Congress have the biggest social media presences. AOC is one of the most followed. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are also up there. If the director of the FBI is testifying before the Senate, I will always watch what Ted Cruz asks. If Ted Cruz or Rand Paul ask something, it may get more attention than what Senator Crapo or Sen Kennedy ask. We saw that in the [Jackson] hearings.”

In a way, the new environment resembles that of so many other institutions of American life that find themselves disrupted by technological and other change: The ivory-tower aspects of the internal culture become harder to retain; competition and risk suddenly seem nearer; everyone needs to walk a line of surviving without tanking the brand. Washington is full of people who’ve had to navigate similar evolutions.

At C-SPAN, the statistics are actually pretty good: Its YouTube channel has a million subscribers; there are 1.5 million followers on Facebook and 2 million on Twitter. The network doesn’t have ratings, but a 2021 audience profile commissioned by C-SPAN and conducted by Ipsos suggests that the number of people who have watched C-SPAN material by any means over the past six months (83 million) is up around 20 percent compared to 2017. The network archives are invaluable for researchers. Though C-SPAN spends its own resources covering press conferences, gaggles and book readings, the congressional coverage — provided gratis via the Capitol’s feed — would be unaffected by belt-tightening.

All the same, according to Kiley, 98 percent of the revenue still comes from the dwindling cable fees. Maintaining relevance isn’t the same as maintaining budget.

When we first spoke, the morning after POLITICO’s bombshell scoop about the reversal of Roe v. Wade, Art was planning for a busy day.

“Every justice, every senator, has said something about Roe,” he said, thinking aloud. “Do I start going through our archives and finding every mention? Trying to remain balanced — I can’t just find the justices nominated by Republican presidents. I have to do them all.”

Meanwhile, new statements were flooding in. “Schumer was just on the floor, spoke for a few minutes. I just put that out on Twitter. But I can’t just put out every politician. We have to make sure there’s a value to following us, not just a firehose of every single comment today. If the president says something as he walks to the helicopter today, sure. If someone says something in the House, I’m not sure I’m looking for this, unless it’s really outrageous. But I’m not just looking for the most outrageous things that get clicks.” They were also monitoring a bunch of other things, including a transportation hearing and a hearing with the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Art, though, was still buzzing from something less newsy. The previous weekend, C-SPAN had, as usual, broadcast the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, with its speech by the president and its monologue by comedian Trevor Noah. The proceedings were duly streamed on the various social platforms, and also posted for followers to see.

“The Trevor Noah clip about ‘I’m going to be fine,’ has over one million views on Twitter,” Art said. “His complete remarks was trending number one on YouTube the next day. And Biden was number nine.”