Hal BoedekerFor 25 years, C-SPAN's dial-in format has captivated viewerSat Oct 8, 2005 23:28188.8.131.52
Reality TV where you make the call
For 25 years, C-SPAN's dial-in format has captivated viewers.
Sentinel Television Critic
October 7, 2005
On Saturday, Erika Barger of Ormond Beach will become a national television host. She will work on C-SPAN with Brian Lamb, the channel's chief executive officer. She will appear with Frank Rich of The New York Times and William Kristol of The Weekly Standard.
Not bad for a 17-year-old.
Barger, who's a senior at Seabreeze High School in Daytona Beach, wrote her way to the 7-to-8 p.m. gig in Washington. She won an essay contest celebrating 25 years of viewer calls to C-SPAN. Barger, who loves the viewer-participation format, regularly watches C-SPAN's Washington Journal in the morning.
"It's important for people to express opinions," Barger says. "If you don't like what the guest says, you can call in."
That's precisely what she did two years ago when a Stanford University professor complained that today's students know little about history. Barger, a history buff, challenged that view.
"I knew I had to call in and let all know that this does not apply to all students," she writes in her winning essay. "Since that time, it has given me greater confidence to listen to others' opinions. What they have to say is important to them. They desire to be heard, and deserve that chance."
C-SPAN is saluting that passion with a live, 25-hour marathon that starts at 8 tonight. America's cable companies created C-SPAN in 1979 as a public service, and it has helped the nation better understand how Congress works.
But Lamb describes the call-ins as the essence of C-SPAN and says they help shape political debate. The channel estimates that it has fielded more than 500,000 calls since the initial one on Oct. 7, 1980.
Which topic has elicited the most responses through the years?
"Whoever is in the White House," says Terry Murphy, C-SPAN's vice president of programming. "It doesn't matter which party. That's what motivates a lot of people to call. They either love or hate him."
The calls these days about President George W. Bush since Hurricane Katrina are all over the board.
"Some are die-hard fans," Murphy says. "Other people can't stand him. I don't think the calls are any stronger against Bush than they were against [Bill] Clinton in 1998," when the Monica Lewinsky scandal raged.
C-SPAN has arranged the marathon by year and topics. Phil Donahue and Pat Buchanan will be guests in the first 90 minutes.
Each president of the last 25 years will be studied for an hour Saturday: Ronald Reagan at 1 a.m., George H.W. Bush at 4 a.m., Clinton at 8 a.m. and George W. Bush at 4 p.m. Other subjects include Supreme Court nominations, the media, social Washington and terrorism. The topic in the 7 p.m. hour Saturday, with essay-winner Barger, will be the Iraq war.
"We're trying over 25 hours to have balance," Murphy says. "Every hour is a different year. What is it about that year we talked about? Who is suited to talk about that? It's not always point/counterpoint. If we've done our job, we'll have satisfied every political leaning."
Murphy and Barry Katz, the marathon's executive producer, agree on the most memorable call. It came the morning of Sept. 12, 2001, after the terrorist attacks.
"It was a paramedic," Katz says. "He was working with the first responders. He went one way and everyone else went the other. They died. It [the call] went on nine or 10 minutes."
Most calls average a minute to two minutes. They can have a cathartic effect, letting the nation vent or reflect after a major story. The calls also can become previews, sort of like trailers at the movies.
"We have found over the years we can get a sense of how big a story will become judging what we hear from callers," Murphy says. "We have found people talking about issues before the media jumped on a story."
As recent examples, he cites the Downing Street memos, reflecting British fears about the U.S. war on Iraq, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's sale of shares in a blind trust. Even so, the C-SPAN format remains quite different from talk radio.
"If you look at radio call-in, those are about the host," Murphy says. "If you do Rush Limbaugh, it's about Rush Limbaugh's opinion. Ours is not about us."
Katz adds: "Our hosts have never said their names on the air."
The calls will be the top priority during the marathon, which will fold in vintage clips of people who have gained higher office or greater fame. These include Vice President Dick Cheney, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
The marathon will introduce the nation to Barger. A panel of judges at C-SPAN selected her work from about 450 entries.
"She's passionate about history," says Jennifer Moire, media-relations manager at C-SPAN. "Her story grabbed us."
Barger says she's ecstatic about being chosen. "It will be my first time on national television," she says. "Brian Lamb will be there. He's one of my favorite people on C-SPAN."
Yet she isn't considering a television career. She picks Harvard as her first choice for college and will major in pre-med or pre-law. Whatever her career path, she plans to keep her eyes on C-SPAN.
"I do watch every day, even on the weekends," Barger says. "I'm very interested in the country's history, the way people did things and adapted to situations, so we don't make the same mistakes."
Hal Boedeker can be reached at 407-420-5756 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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