C-SPAN limiting access to its online channels

Parts of C-SPAN online are going behind a paywall.

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Starting later this summer, the Capitol Hill mainstay will only allow people who sign in as a cable or satellite TV subscriber to watch C-SPAN, C-SPAN 2 and C-SPAN 3 on the Web. Everyone else will still be able to watch individual hearings, press conferences and other content, but they will not have access to the channels' full live streams.

The news outlet says the change is merely a reflection of the way that technology and people’s viewing habits have changed.

“I don’t think paywall is the right phrase because you’ve always had to pay to watch C-SPAN on TV,” said Peter Kiley, the organization’s vice president for affiliate relations.

C-SPAN, a nonprofit created by the cable industry in 1979, is funded through fees paid by cable and satellite companies. Contrary to popular belief, it does not receive any money from the federal government.

New technologies, though, have effectively made that business model obsolete. 

TV sets that connect to the Internet, Kiley said, have negated the need for a cable subscription, which could threaten the organization’s business model.

“If we were giving away the same content that we get paid for putting on TV so easily through the Internet, [which] was now connected to TVs, that business model wasn’t sustainable in the long run,” he told The Hill.

The new policy will only affect online access to the three C-SPAN channels that are streamed online.

It won't affect streams of individual hearings, press conferences or other events, which will still be available to anyone.

People who do not authenticate that they are a cable or satellite subscriber won’t be able to watch live versions of C-SPAN-produced shows like “Washington Journal” or “Book TV,” but will be able to watch recorded version of those shows and more than 200,000 hours of video after the fact.

Still, the move has drawn criticism from some public interest and transparency advocates.

“There definitely is a civic engagement concern stemming from C-SPAN's decision to make its programming less available online,” Matt Wood, the policy director of Free Press, said in an email to The Hill. “And while the network's initial explanations for the move mentioned a desire to preserve its business model for the future, I guess I always thought C-SPAN was supposed to be a public service brought to us by cable — not a profit center.”  

John Wonderlich, the policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, shared concerns that the news channel was sacrificing its public interest mission, potentially as a way to entice people to sign up for cable.

“C-SPAN describes itself as a public service, so you have to be concerned about what their definition of public is, when they start to restrict their offerings to cable subscribers,” he said.

For people who want more transparency in government, the move showed the problems of using a private entity to provide the comprehensive oversight of Congress.

The White House, congressional galleries, committees and many agencies offer live streaming video of major events, but those streams are not as well produced as C-SPAN, nor as well known.

"Ultimately, we want to see government reliably doing it themselves," Wonderlich said.

Anyone feeling slighted by C-SPAN’s change in operations ought to be directing their frustration elsewhere, said Carl Malamud, president of Public.Resource.Org and founder of the first Internet radio station, who has approached leaders of Congress about setting up a new video system.

“They’re making stuff available, and I think that’s a wonderful public service,” he said. “If we’ve got to be pissed off at somebody, it’s got to be the House of Representatives for not taking much more aggressive steps to make this stuff available.”