This week, the normally sedate offerings of C-Span became something close to must-see TV even for casual political observers. In part, that was thanks to the undeniable political drama unfolding on the House floor, as Kevin McCarthy endured humiliation after humiliation on his way to maybe, possibly becoming Speaker of the House. But it wasn’t just the natural drama of the moment that made for such thrilling viewing; it was televisual craftsmanship. C-Span cameras captured all kinds of fascinating, meme-friendly scenes on the House floor, from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chatting with Paul Gosar to serial fabulist George Santos sitting alone to House GOP rebels machinating against their foes. There was a reason this seemed unusual: As many people learned for the first time this week, the election of a Speaker is one of the rare occasions when C-Span is allowed to present a full picture of what’s happening on the House floor. That fact, combined with the spectacle of the moment, put C-Span at the center of political conversation in a way it never had been before. I spoke with the network’s longtime editorial director, Ben O’Connell, about a whirlwind week for a network not used to whirlwinds, and why C-Span is forbidden from having this much fun the rest of the year.
Is this completely unfamiliar terrain for you and C-Span? Do you feel like a media superstar right now?
It is definitely unfamiliar terrain for me. As far as C-Span goes, every now and again something will happen that brings us to wider public attention, but I’ve never seen anything like this before.
I was thinking of the Obamacare vote back in 2017, with John McCain’s thumbs-down. That was a big C-Span moment.
Yeah. And there have been White House Correspondents’ Dinners that have been huge, and the political conventions every four years, and the State of the Union every year. There are certainly times when we notice an uptick in interest, but never anything like this.
Are you rooting for this standoff to keep going for months? You can be honest.
[Laughs.] No, I’m not.
The coverage has been a big hit with the public. And it definitely doesn’t seem like House members are shying away from having negotiations out in the open, even though they know they’re being recorded — maybe they’re even showing off for the cameras. Which raises the question: Why isn’t this allowed all the time?
We would love to be able to show this kind of coverage to the American people when major pieces of legislation are on the floor. That has not yet ever come to pass. I hope it will at some point soon. We have asked for greater transparency access for cameras from the House, the Senate, the Supreme Court for literally decades. It’s hard to know if it will ever completely open up, but man, we would love to see that, at least for the major bills that everybody’s talking about around the watercooler, around the dinner table, or texting about with their friends.
I’m not sure many people understand that most of the time, when they’re watching C-Span on the House floor and Senate floors, it’s being shot by the House recording studio or Senate recording studio government-run offices within the Capitol that provide the sole coverage of legislative sessions in those two bodies. Independent-media cameras are entirely excluded from the chambers in the House. They make rare exceptions: the Speaker’s election, the State of the Union address, joint sessions of Congress, such as when President Zelenskyy addressed Congress a couple weeks ago. Those are times when they will often invite media cameras in, but when they’re doing legislative work, it’s never journalists behind the cameras.
In an interview with Slate, you said that you’re not really barking out orders, and that the camera operators on the floor have a lot of leeway. I guess the fact that the 12th Speaker vote is happening as we’re having this conversation speaks to that level of autonomy.
We have three cameras in the chamber, and we also have access to a camera that you’ve probably seen operated by the House recording studio — it hangs from the ceiling and does a straight-down shot of the floor. And then we have a director and audio operator, and people who can give them breaks when needed. They’re operating largely on their own. We have a deep bench of pros at C-Span. Our field techs know these members, and know who to look for and what to follow on the floor. Occasionally I’ll text our production manager, who’s also acting as our audio operator with a recommendation, but they’re flying solo and all the better for it. They don’t need me in there.
You also said that you do have planning meetings where you all huddle and, and discuss plotlines, so to speak.
Absolutely. A couple weeks before the Speaker vote, I got together with our production manager, Kristina Buddenhagen, and Andrew Jones, who was going to be our daytime director. And we talked through everything that we would want to see on the floor, the big picture. We talked about some of the sights that Americans are not normally able to see because of the way the House floor is typically shot by the House recording studio. We talked about the tally board that’s up behind the speaker’s dais, which has the names of all the members as they record their electronic votes. More than anything, we talked about wanting to see the members negotiating with one another in the aisles, in their seats, in the back of the chamber. You never see that on the government-sponsored feed, which is the only video you would typically see from the House.
Is there one of the political parties more resistant to making this a permanent arrangement than the other? Or is this more about general federal bureaucracy intransigence?
We’ve made this request of every news speaker going back long before I was at C-Span, and I’ve been there for 22 years. Speakers of both parties have declined our request. You’d have to ask them for their rationale, but it’s certainly not a partisan issue.
I think people are also confused about the fact that C-Span is not a government organization.
I have to explain to family members that we are not a government agency on a regular basis. Now, I have a big family. But I hope that the amount of exposure that we’re getting over the last few days, if it does nothing else, stops me from having to explain it over and over again.
Why are there these exceptions you mentioned, like the Speaker election? That also seems like kind of a random rule.
It’s the way the House wants it. I can’t explain it — they’d have to answer that. Also, when it is the government operating the cameras, they have very strict guidelines to which they need to adhere. They’re only able to show wide shots and the person speaking at any given time; you’ll never see a reaction shot. You will never see people negotiating in the back of the chamber, and you’ll never see two colleagues sitting next to one another.
In other words, all the good stuff.
Yeah. I think that’s one of the reasons that people are so taken with our coverage. Because they’re able to see what’s happening on the House floor, not just who’s speaking at any given time.
And there’s no real reason why this shouldn’t be the case all the time.
I can’t think of one either.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.