That’s why, in a facility that wasn’t used to fighting for eyes, employees like Art are now getting serious managerial attention. “We pushed Jeremy to be faster and better and tweet more 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’s retweeting us, who’s quoting us, how many likes, that 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 off-brand behaviors at his decidedly nonpartisan employer. Twitter loves inflammatory language, abject trolling, and urgings to watch a political figure ABSOLUTELY EVISCERATE a hated rival. C-SPAN, on the other hand, does not. Instead, Art sticks to baby steps.
Like sometimes using adjectives.
An early test involved a tweet with video footage of Rand Paul and Anthony Fauci mingling in it during a hearing. “We used the word ‘heated up’ to describe an exchange,” explains Art. “I stayed away from that. But we’ve had a lot of talk inside — how can we say anything other than, “See the full exchange between Senator Paul and Doctor Fauci?” How can we say, “This is something you should watch”? Should we use the word ‘hot’ or ‘passionate’? We settled on the word “heated”. I used it a few times.
Of course, this can be risky. During Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings earlier this spring, Art used the same word to describe an encounter between the judicial nominee and a furious senator. “I said it was a heated exchange between Lindsey Graham and Judge Jackson, and there were a lot of people saying, he’s an angry man and a very calm, collected judge. So we thought, should we remove it?
Not wanting to draw further attention to the controversy, they decided against it. But the enigma remained. “Listen, we’re going to share 53 clips this week. How can we say, ‘This one isn’t just about how she ruled?’ Do we say, ‘Look at Lindsey Graham getting mad?’ But then his office would call and say, “He’s not angry, he’s passionate on behalf of his constituents.”
How did an ad-free nonprofit that hasn’t even used Nielsen ratings come to sweat over the performance of a courtroom video on Twitter? It starts with the business model. Until a few years ago, C-SPAN – underwritten by the country’s cable TV providers – was living the dream: about six cents of every monthly cable bill in the country went to the network, a guaranteed revenue stream that helped the company grow beyond the Capitol stream of hammer-to-hammer Congressional coverage to include broadcast footage of political events across the country, a radio platform, and its own exclusive books and a historical coverage, with enough leftovers for educational projects like the C-SPAN bus.
But the past decade has hammered the cable industry, and C-SPAN with it. Cable royalty revenue has fallen from more than $70 million at its peak to what is expected to be less than $50 million this year, according to Kiley. They had to set the sails: there was a takeover last year, as the size of staff fell from around 235 to around 200. The bus was quietly mothballed.
More interestingly, the cable company’s troubles have also forced some culture change at a Washington institution that once seemed isolated from the grimy business of commerce. Kiley is pushing to get C-SPAN on streaming services like YouTube TV and Hulu Live. There are now ads on the website, YouTube channel, and app. There’s a fun caving through gems podcast available at the C-SPAN Archive. They hire their first digital director and brainstorm ways to license content and possibly cultivate donors on public radio. “We looked at everything we could come up with,” he says.
He really means it all: “We sell hats and t-shirts,” says Kiley. “If you’re the type of person who downloaded the app and watches three or four things a week, we think you’re the type 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” jumpsuit $19.95, and a C-SPAN stemless wine glass just $17.95. .)
On the content creation side of the store, the culture shift involved something more basic: new definitions of competition.
An excerpt from a speech by Mitch McConnell can circulate on an infinite number of social media accounts. The job is to make sure people see it on C-SPAN. Art and his social media team now constantly post live streams, but also cut them into shareable video nuggets, well aware that there are others rushing to cut the same content and show it to the public on their own accounts.
Sometimes speed is the key variable; other times it’s the quality. This is 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 “b—-” on the steps of the Capitol. A media frenzy ensued, and Ocasio-Cortez (“I hope it’s OK I call him AOC,” Art says) finally took to the House floor.
“I remember her giving that speech, knowing it had the potential to be very important,” Art said. “But I knew at the time that I had to wait for it to be done. I saw other people sharing the first few minutes. I thought, I want people to share this, but I also wanted people say, watch it all here. When he finally tweeted the entire 9-minute, 54-second clip, “it just took off. (The copy Art wrote to accompany the clip, by the way, was only (an excerpt from his speech – no adjectives included.) C-SPAN’s video has been viewed 16.4 million times on Twitter, more on other platforms. With 106,000 shares, it was the network’s biggest post. of the year.
Another cultural shift in the attention economy involves more selection and choice. By definition, Gavel-to-Globe Congressional coverage treats all hearings and speeches equally. But in the social space, you need to keep an eye out for what has a following.
“I probably share more McConnell and Schumer, obviously, than AOC and The Squad,” Art says. “But if she’s on the committee in a hearing, I’ll watch a lot of things because she just says things in different ways and people might want to see it — maybe young people or people who don’t don’t follow politics very much. . I know which members of Congress are on social media the most. The AOC is one of the most followed. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are also up there. If the FBI director testifies in the Senate, I’ll still be monitoring what Ted Cruz is asking. If Ted Cruz or Rand Paul asks for something, it may get more attention than Senator Crapo or Sen Kennedy asks. We have seen 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 changes: the ivory tower aspects of internal culture become more difficult to retain ; competition and risk suddenly seem closer; everyone has to walk a survival line without tanking the mark. Washington is full of people who have had to navigate similar developments.
At C-SPAN, the stats are 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 watched C-SPAN material by any means over the past six months (83 million) is up about 20% from 2017. The network’s archives are invaluable to researchers. Although C-SPAN expends its own resources to cover press conferences, gags and book readings, Congressional coverage – provided free via the Capitol feed – would not be affected by the tightening of the belt.
Nonetheless, according to Kiley, 98% of revenue still comes from lower cable rates. Maintaining relevance is not the same as maintaining budget.
When we first spoke, the morning after POLITICO’s explosive scoop on the overthrow of Roe vs. WadeArt was planning a busy day.
“Every judge, every senator, said something about Roe,” he said, thinking aloud. “Do I start going through our archives and finding every mention? Trying to stay balanced – I just can’t find the Republican Presidential appointees. I have to do them all.
Meanwhile, new statements were pouring in. “Schumer was just on the floor, talked for a few minutes. I just posted it on Twitter. But I can’t denounce all the politicians. We need to make sure there is value in following us, not just a firehose from every comment today. If the president says anything as he walks up to the helicopter today, sure. If somebody says something in the House, I’m not sure I’m looking for it, unless it’s really outrageous. But I’m not just looking for the most outrageous things that get clicks. They were also watching a bunch of other stuff, including a transportation hearing and an audience with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The art, however, was always buzzing with something less topical. The previous weekend, C-SPAN had, as usual, aired the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, complete with his speech from the president and his monologue from comedian Trevor Noah. The debates were duly broadcast on the various social platforms, and also posted for subscribers to see.
“Trevor Noah’s clip to ‘I’m Fine’ has had over a million views on Twitter,” Art said. “His comprehensive remarks were trending number one on YouTube the next day. And Biden was number nine.