Citizens Lobby on Shoestring

Posted November 14, 2003 at 6:07pm

This fall season cable networks are offering a red-hot lineup of tantalizing television from Fox’s new runaway hit “The O.C.” to NBC’s sexy drama “Las Vegas.”

But for political junkies across the country, these upstart new shows have nothing on a thrilling old TV staple — C-SPAN.

Citizens for C-SPAN, a group of about 250 loyal viewers working to ensure that all Americans have access to not only basic C-SPAN but also C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3, recently launched an expanded Web site for their cause.

While the group has no affiliation with the network, founder Seattle attorney Regina LaBelle said the group serves an important function because C-SPAN, which is funded as a public service by cable operators, has little money to lobby on its own behalf.

The new Web site — citizensforcspan.org — allows viewers to register their support for C-SPAN, provides information and contact listings for local cable operators and shows supporters how they can fight cutbacks in the number of cable operators that carry C-SPAN.

According to LaBelle, she’s running a “shoestring grassroots organization” that is especially important today as new threats loom on the horizon for the public service network. And this expanded push comes as the group braces for what could become the biggest cutback in the number of operators that carry C-SPAN since 1992.

Some cable industry watchers expect a vote by the middle of next month by the Federal Communications Commission on a provision that will determine how cable companies will be forced to divvy up a limited amount of carriage space in the switch to digital television.

This must-carry ruling, though expected by many to fail an FCC vote, would be extremely detrimental to C-SPAN if it were passed, said Peter Kiley, director of affiliate relations for the network.

And while LaBelle said the timing of the new Web site was coincidental to the impending FCC decision, she explained that a widespread move by cable operators to drop C-SPAN from their lineup is exactly what her group is afraid of today. If the cuts happen, LaBelle may face her biggest challenge since the group’s founding in 1996, when she took it upon herself to begin a letter-writing campaign to return C-SPAN to her hometown of Seattle after an outage.

Kiley praised the organization for its efforts to promote C-SPAN.

“It’s great to be able to show our viewers and the industry and Congress that there is this strong backing and attitude among viewers and among people — that they truly highly value C-SPAN,” he said.

LaBelle said whatever the outcome of the FCC decision, her group will continue to work to raise awareness for C-SPAN.

“I think people think the problem is gone because, ‘Well, I’ve got a hundred channels so what’s the problem?’” Labelle said. “But the economics of the situation is still before us and the bottom line is C-SPAN isn’t making any money for anyone — it’s a public service.”