Interview Date: November 13, 2017
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Cable Center Hauser Oral History Project
Stewart Schley: Good day, greetings, and welcome to The Cable Center’s Oral History series. I’m Stewart Schley, for The Cable Center, Denver, Colorado studio. Today I have the privilege of talking to someone whose entire career, really, has been spent in the cable industry, at a very formative time for the industry. Peter Kiley is vice president of affiliate relations and communications for C-SPAN. He’s sort of grown up with and helped the industry grow up in a time of enormous tumult, change, and development and growth. So Peter, so happy to have you with us today.
Peter Kiley: Thrilled to be here, thank you, Stewart.
Schley: You know, we were talking off camera, but you’ve spent literally 31 years, your entire career, with one employer. That doesn’t happen anymore. How’d you do it?
Kiley: It’s very rare, but I think C-SPAN is a unique place. We joke that it’s filled with Eagle Scouts, and people who are president of their senior class in high school. It’s interesting that the core leadership group, six vice presidents, the co-CEOs, Brian Lamb, of course, and Bruce Collins, our general counsel, every one of those people now is a 20-plus year C-SPAN employee, and most of them are 30-plus years. All but one, I think, has been here for 30 years. So it, we came in together there, in the early to mid-1980s. Definitely a fledgling network at the time, it was one channel when we all started. House of Representatives, it launched to about three and a half million homes, and by the time I got there in 1986, it was I think about 10 million homes. The cable industry itself, most of the other channels hadn’t launched, or were just getting started. C-SPAN I think was the sixth network to launch. So it was a sort of young and committed group of people from a fairly diverse set of backgrounds came in, and working together, and very much under Brian, and we’ll talk a little bit about Brian Lamb, but under his direction, started to build this, and build on the idea he had for delivering a product that was completely unique to anything else in the media marketplace. And I guess we were converts to that idea pretty quickly. Growing up in the same media world that he had, we recognized that there was an opportunity to offer the American public something very different than was available. Satellite technology was coming, so many things were happening. So, this small group of people, we sort of very early on, sort of found our niches within the company, and helped build it up that way, and we’re still there, fairly passionately working on it all these years later.
Schley: You know, as a kid growing up in Indiana, later as a college student at University of San Diego, my guess is you didn’t dream of going to work for something called C-SPAN. But I want to ask you about your introduction to the place, and maybe recount your first experience, or visit, with Brian Lamb?
Kiley: Yes. I remember my first visit with Brian Lamb, as probably most people do very, very well. I did, I grew up in Indiana, and I went to school at the University of San Diego, great place to go to college. And I had a series of very lucky occurrences. And that was, when I was home for Christmas my junior year of college, the mail comes, and in the mail was a flyer, a brochure from my member of Congress, a guy named Elwood H. “Bud” Hillis, from Kokomo, Indiana. And I just happened to pick it up, and was flipping through it, and there was a little box in there, talking about summer internships. And I hadn’t thought about going to Washington before, but I was a political science major, and so I applied, and got that internship, and interned in Washington between my junior and senior year of college. And after graduating from college in California, I decided I wanted to — everyone thought I was going to go to law school, I thought I was going to go to law school, but I wasn’t convinced on it. And so, total lucky happenstance, I ran into Bud Hillis, the member of Congress, in my hometown. And he said, “Well you always have a job from me.” And I took him up for it. I moved to Washington, and started to work for my member of Congress. It turned out, he didn’t so much have a job for me. Right? You know, there was opportunity there, but he, shortly after I arrived in the late summer of 1986, announced that he wasn’t going to run again. So there wasn’t a lot of action in his office. So, I looked to start networking around Washington. And the fun story is that my father, in Indiana, was a beer distributor. My father was a Notre Dame guy. Brian Lamb’s father was also a beer distributor, and a Purdue guy. So on a handful of times throughout when I was a young guy, I would go to Notre Dame/Purdue football games, and I had met Brian’s father at these events, and on a handful of occasions. Our fathers were very close rivals and friends. So, I, in my networking around, I called Brian Lamb, I introduced myself, said who my parents were, and he said, “Please come over, I’d love to meet you.” And my intention was for him to talk to me, help me get a job somewhere elsewhere on Capitol Hill. I had moved to Washington, of course, to work on the Hill. That was my goal. And I met with him, we talked, we walked around C-SPAN, which was very small, maybe about 50 people at the time, I met Susan Swain, who was also there. They started talking about job opportunities, and I said, “Oh no, no, no, no, I’m really here to work on the Hill.” So it was a great meeting, he was very warm to me, and I was instantly struck by the passion that he had for what he was doing, and the intensity of what was happening there. So, even though I didn’t go to work for him in that early time, when I first met him, it struck me that here was a guy doing something really, really different.
Schley: Had you known of C-SPAN before this?
Kiley: I did a little bit. Yes, in San Diego, it was the Cox system, as it still is today, and they carried C-SPAN, and I had, being a poli-sci guy, I had watched it, not to a great extent. And when I moved to Washington, it became pretty obvious that a lot of the young staffers all watched C-SPAN, and used C-SPAN. It was still fairly new, but it was a very cool thing that was happening.
Schley: And we all want to earn a paycheck when we’re fresh out of college.
Kiley: Yes. (laughter)
Schley: But beyond that, what led you to think this would be an enervating, or intriguing, or interesting opportunity, when you did take it?
Kiley: Yes, they gave me a great opportunity. Susan Swain called, and said they needed help with a project, and would I be interested in coming in at night, and working on a project with them? And I thought, that sounds great. You know, interesting. I liked them, and so I went in at night. Little did I know, the project was, back in those days, every program was logged in like an accountant auditor’s book. Graph paper, and lines, and things. And they would write, “House hearing,” you know, and what the topics were, and the in time, and the out time, so the length of that event, for interview programs, call-ins, for the hearings, White House press conferences, House, everything that we put our cameras in to cover got logged.
Kiley: And so, they handed me this tremendous pile of accounting notebooks, and asked me to go through them, and catalog it all. Say how many hearings did we cover, of which committees? And how many hours of programming were devoted to the House, to the hearings, to the White House? And then write a press release for it at the end of the year, so I can say that, you know, 800 hours of C-SPAN’s, I think it was 4,000 hours of original content, was the House of Representatives, and 1,200 hours was hearings, and that stuff. And so that was my first project. I had a great time doing it, it was kind of miserable work, now that’s all automated, of course.
Schley: Oh sure, yes.
Kiley: But it was really fascinating the people I met, that were putting those things together. I had a great time working with Susan doing the press release on it, and this was like, big. And they offered me a position after doing that project, and I accepted.
Schley: Take us back, this was ’86 when you began?
Kiley: It was the fall, it was December of ’85 when I did that, and January of 1986 when I started officially.
Schley: And quickly then, because it was a small, lean staff, you became immersed in this world of cable television. What did the industry look like then, from the vantage point of a programmer, that like other programmers, was trying to increase its distribution and its influence, ultimately?
Kiley: It was a very different industry. There were probably roughly 30 to 40, 50 channels, if that. There was just one C-SPAN channel, and C-SPAN2, the Senate decided to allow cameras in, in June. June 2nd of 1986 is when the Senate turned their cameras on. And that was part of the reason, I think, that Brian and Susan were looking to increase the staff size. They knew a whole lot of activity was going to be coming in 1986. They sensed that that vote was going to happen, and they had a pretty good idea that it was going to pass. So, the organization was growing, and I think grew from in the mid-fifties to maybe 75 people. So still pretty small. The idea that C-SPAN was going to get a second channel, and seek distribution for it, was a very big deal. Why did you need two channels? That’s more bandwidth, that’s more channel space that you’re going to do. What are the costs associated with that? There’s not a huge appetite for affiliates to pay high license fees to anyone, let alone to a nonprofit channel like us. We can talk more about that later. But, you know, to be launching in that time was a real risk, and a real challenge. We strongly insisted that it had to be a second channel. Because if you didn’t have two channels, you’d be making an editorial decision each day between the House and the Senate. They’re in session at the same time. We thought the beauty of what we do is that gavel-to-gavel coverage of Congress, not some editorial decision about who’s doing what, and who’s saying what, but let’s show it, as they used to say all the time back then, warts and all. We will show Congress in action, or inaction, however you might put it. And so it’s critical that we do get a second channel, and of course we cleverly titled it C-SPAN2. (laughter)
Schley: But, you just alluded to this, it was the time when there wasn’t unending channel capacity. Your partners, your affiliates, had to make decisions about what to carry, and talk about the business model. C-SPAN wasn’t free, you had to have a revenue source, and they paid a licensing fee to you.
Kiley: Yes, I think the, one of the unrecognized brilliant moves of Brian was figuring out, and it was luck, how to pay for a service like C-SPAN. And we can talk about the individuals that supported him, but the idea that an industry would pay for something that didn’t make them any money, and didn’t secure them good relationships in Washington. I think it helps the industry a great deal, that they have, for so many years, funded and supported, and made something like C-SPAN, the networks possible. But the idea that, you know, we were going to be taking really valuable asset, precious bandwidth, channel capacity, and pump it through to subscribers, without the opportunity for the affiliate to recoup any of those costs by selling advertising, primarily, and it wasn’t going to be like a whole lot of people were going to rush out to get cable to buy C-SPAN. There are those, we love those C-SPAN junkies. But those aren’t big numbers. So it was a great commitment on behalf of the industry to say, that’s the right thing to do, we see this industry growing in lots of different ways, and a lot of them are going to be niche, they’re going to maybe serve small audience, but it’s going to be an important audience, and I think we can do really great things. Whether it’s creating this really terrific new entertainment content, terrific new sports content, this was a way of doing something that was really public service-oriented, and driven by the First Amendment, and people’s patriotism, in many cases.
Schley: You did have this luster of the right thing to do around C-SPAN. But in many ways, your charge, and your job, was not that different from an affiliate relations executive at MTV, or Country Music Television, or any of these new channels that were cropping up. You had to sell.
Kiley: You know, we did, we had to sell. There was a critical point in 1989 when most of the carriage C-SPAN was getting, when operators would agree to launch either C-SPAN, or now C-SPAN2, it was being driven by our board of directors. The leaders of the industry sat on C-SPAN’s board, they had bought into this idea, they had committed to it, and they were saying to their general managers across the United States, “You got to put this on, I want you to put this on.” And that didn’t put a very good mindset in a whole lot of general managers when they were being graded and judged on delivering X, and they didn’t get us, right? So, Amos Hostetter, the great Amos Hostetter, who was an original C-SPAN board member in 1978, when the board first formed, and actually still serves on our board today, as a senior director, is still a terrific influence, but Amos said to Brian, “You really need to expand your affiliate group.” We had one or two people that traveled the country and, you know, we didn’t get to many systems, it was to corporate headquarters and things. So we went from two to six people, and regional reps. And we hit the road. (laughter) We hit the road. I was first in the Midwest, and then on the West Coast. And we would go out for a week at a time, put hundreds of miles on a rental car, sit down with three, four, five cable systems a day if we could. And just tell the C-SPAN story. Help them understand why Amos, or whomever their board member was, was supporting it. Why it was an important thing to do. Why it would matter in their community. Explain the business relationship that we had, how the license fee worked, and what it was actually paying for. And I think that did a world of good. There were a lot of them that bought in, and really got it then. And they’re people who we’re still friends with today. There were a lot that didn’t get it, you know?
Schley: Yes, I was going to ask, was there tension in the room? Or were they difficult conversations?
Kiley: Oh, there was a terrific amount of tension in some of those rooms. Because I mean, there still is today, you know, if — at that point, it wasn’t so much, but if you’re an operations person today, and you’re responsible for profit and loss for a cable system, you read a spreadsheet as a narrative, right? You look at that spreadsheet, and you see a story there that it tells you about what’s making money for me, and what’s not. What do I need to do to do my job? If you’re a senior executive on an operations side, you’ve got to deliver X revenue increase each year, and do certain things, and now you’re managing each bit of bandwidth that’s going through, and you’re monetizing that, back in the old days. You would look, if I add a channel, how much can I make off of that, and what’s the license fee, and what’s it going to cost? C-SPAN does not look too good on those charts, right?
Schley: Right. (laughter)
Kiley: We don’t have any ratings, there’s no viewership numbers, it’s not that we were marketing and advertising ourselves much at the time. So it was just a cost to them, and it took bandwidth. So, it was really hard to convince some of these people that yes, on their own, they should agree to launch our channels. Or to just feel better about it, and work with us if they had been forced to.
Schley: From on high.
Kiley: From on high. Yes.
Schley: Talk about some of the major inflection points or the numbers, were there certain subscriber counts that were important to you guys to achieve, and just kind of take us through that. You had the steady upward progression in distribution.
Kiley: We had the steady upward progression to about 50 million was a big number for us. And about, probably 89 or 90 —
Schley: For C-SPAN1?
Kiley: For C-SPAN1 to hit 50 million homes, and we had a big party at one of the NCTA shows to celebrate 50 million with our board of directors, and to really, that was one of the first times that we, in a big way, tried to say thank you to the industry for doing that. You know, and then as you get into the ’90s, the growth did two things, really. It really started to explode as the industry started to grow so fast.
Schley: Added subscribers.
Kiley: Added subscribers. And of course, we benefited from the launch of the satellite services. DIRECTV and Dish went up in the mid-’90s, both of them carried C-SPAN and C-SPAN2. So as the industry pretty rapidly grew from that mid-50 million number, all the way up to what we saw a few years ago, a little over 100 million, C-SPAN rode the wave of that. And today, we’re the most distributed, C-SPAN is the most widely distributed service.
Schley: You had the headwinds in certain areas, but on the regulatory side, I wanted to ask you about two entrants into your domain, the must-carry laws and regulations, and related to it, retransmission consent.
Schley: What were they, and how did they affect your business?
Kiley: Well Rob Kennedy and Brian Lamb and I all joked that we had full heads of hair before must carry and retransmission consent.
Kiley: They were very difficult years for C-SPAN as that regulatory regime came into play. So it was the 1992 Cable Act. The Consumer Protection Act, they called it. And it heavily regulated cable in a number of different ways. Most onerous to C-SPAN was must-carry, and retransmission consent. I won’t describe them too much, because a lot of the audience can find that elsewhere, or lived through it too. But must-carry said that every broadcast licensee within a television market was granted must-carry rights on the local cable system. And that became, and it was passed in ’92, and in June of 1993, I think that became the law of the land. And there were many, many cable systems that simply did not have the capacity, the bandwidth, the channel capacity, to put on the lineup, all those broadcast licenses within the market.
Schley: We were still in an era sometimes of 35 channel cable systems.
Kiley: Oh sure, lots of channels, yes, 35 to 54 channels. And you might have 18 or 20 broadcast licensees in a market, there might be a fourth and fifth PBS network, there were licenses that had been dormant for many, many years, but were suddenly extraordinarily valuable. And so they were bought up by different television groups, and put on. It was a whole lot of repetitive programming, but when push came to shove, and the operators, by the law, had to put those channels on, what was the first thing to go? The nonprofit, non-revenue generating, public service channel. So C-SPAN2, which had launched in ’86 and had seen nice growth with the support, that work that we’d all done, being out on the road so hard in the late ’80s and early ’90s, C-SPAN2 took a lot of hits. And lost several million homes. C-SPAN was cut back to part-time in many, many places, and shared with another channel. We’d be on during the daytime, and someone else on in primetime. You know, about that point, really at that point, most viewership was in primetime. So it hurt us a lot. I think in all, some 12 million subs were impacted, either cut to part-time, or dropped completely. It was very difficult, it was across the industry, it was really hard. And then when you had retransmission consent on the heels of that kicked in, and you had FX, and Fox News, and MSNBC, and CNBC, broadcast groups using retransmission consent, when the industry agreed that they were going to pay them money at the time, but in exchange for giving up cash payment, they would support the launch of a new channel.
Schley: Give them a channel, yes.
Kiley: Give them a channel. And then operators were essentially forced to add those channels widely, that made it, we took a few more hits from those, where we went off the air, or just made it more difficult, because capacity started to expand, for us to get on. It was a brutal period.
Schley: You know, people, I think sometimes —
Kiley: Very stressful.
Schley: — you weren’t just providing a public service. You were running a business. So when you lost carriage, you lost subscribers, you lost revenue.
Kiley: We only lost a little bit of revenue, actually.
Kiley: Because the payment for C-SPAN, the way it works for a distributor of C-SPAN, is they pay a license fee to C-SPAN only for C-SPAN. And then there’s no extra cost for C-SPAN2, or now C-SPAN3.
Kiley: So there’s no extra charge for that. So as long as C-SPAN was not dropped completely from the system, they still paid us our license fee for that.
Kiley: The license fee, I think, was about three and a half, four cents at that time.
Schley: Per month, per subscriber?
Kiley: Per month, per subscriber at that time. So even when we were cut back to part-time, they still paid us. And that’s why the industry, as tough as — they didn’t want to be cutting back C-SPAN. These were good people and good friends. They were under incredible pressure, and in nearly every case, they kept at least C-SPAN on part-time, and continued to pay the license fee.
Schley: And while this is going on, you’re now running the affiliate group, is that —
Kiley: I was managing that group of people that traveled around the country, and doing corporate relations, yes.
Schley: One of the vehicles for growth, ha-ha, pun intended, was this creation you guys came up with, I don’t know how, called the C-SPAN Bus.
Kiley: The C-SPAN Bus, now in its 24th year, it’s one of the most fun things that we’ve done. One of the smartest, in terms of building goodwill and closer relationships with our cable industry partners. It’s been a tremendous outreach tool. It started from, there’s the historian that you see on TV a lot right now, Doug Brinkley. Doug Brinkley wrote a book called The Magic Bus. And he was a young professor at Hofstra University, and he did a, you know how students might do a semester at sea? He did a semester on a bus, where he traveled the United States, and visited historical sites. If you’re talking about Martin Luther King, we’re at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He went to great places of historical significance. Civil War sites, all this. And he wrote a book about it. And Brian found that book, and interviewed Doug on Book Notes. And everybody loved that. Brian said, “We need a bus. Wouldn’t it be great if C-SPAN had a bus, to travel around?” And much, again, to the credit of the board of directors, they said yes, you can get a bus, and then we told them how much it was going to be, and they said we could get three or four Winnebagos and travel around for that. Brian insisted, no, we want something that will really impact people when it shows up. So we bought the biggest, baddest bus we could. It’s 45 feet long, we painted it bright yellow, called it the C-SPAN School Bus. If you think back, this is 1992, the fall of 1992. And when you think back, Cable in the Classroom was just getting started. We were looking for ways to expand our programming reach. So to get more content from outside of Washington, D.C. And we really still needed to help the local cable operator get credit for C-SPAN. Right? We had sort of convinced them, “Oh it’s a good thing,” they were carrying it now, but they didn’t feel like they were getting any love for that. So, having this vehicle that could go out on the road served all three purposes. It was big and beautiful, impressive, and high-tech, and it was basically a mobile production vehicle, right? There’s a studio on wheels, with a whole demo area up front. So we would pull into a community, always in partnership with the local cable operator, visit a school, bring kids out, they’d be turned onto C-SPAN. We’d sit with teachers, and talk to them about how to use C-SPAN in the classroom, we’d take the cameras off the bus, and visit local sites of historical or literary significance. All the time, talking about this is only available to you thanks to Tom here from TCI Cable —
Schley: Local cable company.
Kiley: — whatever local cable company you have. And it worked beautifully.
Kiley: We’re now on our fourth bus, we’re in our 24th year, we, our newest bus just hit the road a few weeks ago, we’re on a 50 capitals tour, which is pretty fun. We’re going to visit all 50 capitals, including Hawaii and Alaska with it. So the bus has been a tremendous success for us, it has endeared us to citizens all across the United States. You know, we’re sort of the non-personality network.
Kiley: That darn bus has a personality.
Schley: It’s you, yes.
Kiley: It’s awesome. And people know it, and we know now, adults in their twenties and thirties who are C-SPAN viewers, and users, and come to our websites, and use our resources, and they hearken back to, “I remember when you visited my high school.”
Schley: Sixth grade, yes, right.
Kiley: Yes. And they go, I remember that day. And you know, if we see 100 kids in a day, there might be 60 that don’t ever remember it at all. But there are 40 that do, and there are 10, that say, that was cool, and remember it.
Schley: Yes. Did you hit the road with both production people, and business, affiliate people?
Kiley: We did, yes. It was an affiliate rep doing sort of the PR and marketing, and working with the cable guys. And it was a production person on the bus at all times. Now it’s primarily just that affiliate person doing marketing and PR. And occasionally, we’ll fly people in to do productions.
Schley: Did you log some miles yourself on the bus?
Kiley: I did, I logged quite a few miles in the early days of the bus, and managed the bus, and its team, it was about 22 people at the time, and we had two buses for I think, four years.
Schley: I’m struck by talking to you, how many people you have sat down and talked with face to face, and just wanted to invite you to riff a little bit about some of the people in this industry you’ve met who have really sort of stood out, or made an impact, and what you learned from them.
Kiley: Yes. I’ve been really lucky in that C-SPAN’s board of directors, made up of the CEOs of cable companies, to have spent time with a number of them. And they are, you know, a who’s who of the icons of the industry at the time I was there. And I learned so much from watching them, and seeing how they did certain things with their people, and their companies. You know, in terms of just influence on my career though, there’s a whole slew of other people in the industry, and not sort of those big board member names, you know?
Schley: Yes. Yes.
Kiley: I think, you know, you have to start any list, if you’re me or probably any C-SPAN-er would say this, with Brian. Brian Lamb has taught all of us so much. The C-SPAN networks, and the way we operate, the way we do our business day in and day out, is such a reflection of him and his personality. It really is, very much, a culture that is, stems from his persuasion. I’ve worked all that time with Rob Kennedy and Susan Swain, they’ve had a huge influence on me, day to day basis, for so long. Bruce Collins is our general counsel, he’s been very much a mentor to me from the very earliest days, and a guide. And a great friend, and Bruce and I have negotiated every affiliation agreement that C-SPAN’s done in all that time. So we’re very close. So inside of C-SPAN, those people have been terrific. Outsiders, there’s a number of people. I think, you know, Lynn Yaeger and Bonnie Hathaway at Time Warner taught me so much about public affairs, and how if we were going to be doing community events and public relations, they had to serve a business or government relations objective, and you know, we would come in with these great ideas, and sometimes twist them to serve an objective, or we would go and learn what their objectives were, and create something off of that. They were just amazing guides, and stewards to having C-SPAN build public affairs programs that would be successful in partnership with cable operators. You know, Rob Stoddard has been a friend for all the years, and I still interact with Rob a great deal, and our neighbor in Washington, and NCTA is just around the corner from us. And I learned from Rob in almost every interaction that I might have with him. Ellen East taught me so much about PR, and about team building, and building loyal teams. Ellen’s a terrific leader of people, and so staunchly stood up for what she thought was right, and really helped me with that a lot.
Kiley: I met David Krone when he was at TCI, first doing political stuff for them during those must-carry days, when we were losing so many subs, and David had a huge influence on the industry, and he’s a name that probably a lot of people don’t even know, right?
Kiley: He’s an incredibly quiet and private guy who wielded terrific influence and power in the industry, first at TCI, and then with Leo Hindery, and then as the number two at NCTA, he worked for Comcast for a time. And he ended up being Senator Harry Reid’s chief of staff. And David’s just, he wields power in such a quiet way, and I always admired and respected the way he kept himself out of that. I got a look at people like, you know, Char Beales and Anne Cowan. If Char taught you anything, it’s how to network. CTAM. I loved the passion that she brought to whatever room she was in, to meet people, to know people, to find out what made them tick, and to make them move, and in terms of just intellect, and seeing how people could manage this broad portfolio of activities and things, but still, always have time to focus on me, or on C-SPAN. There are two people at Comcast that always just overwhelmed me with their capability to do that, is Joe Waz, who was there forever and did government affairs, and now is back consulting with them. And the guy that replaced him in a certain part of the business named Bret Perkins. And they’re just the two smartest people I know. And they have such broad portfolios, but have always given me time if I’ve called and said, I need to talk something through, or I need some help with your company, or help in the industry. Great minds for that. So I’ve been really lucky, those people, they’ve all been great leaders, not maybe at the top of the company, the way our boards are, but huge influences, I think, throughout the industry, and certainly helped me a lot. There’s a lot more too, Chris LaPlaca at ESPN is their SVP of PR and communications, and the way he deals with people, the way he deals with some great situations right now that are challenging.
I watch what he does a lot, and learn from him. He’s a real pro, and he’s just another one of those great people, the kind of people you want to surround yourself with.
Schley: A lot, Peter, of the names you’re reciting, are people I know as a journalist from the industry, and covering the industry. And one dimension of your career that I wanted to bring forth is that you’ve always been active in helping the communicator side of the business. You’ve been president of Association of Cable Communicators, and/or CTPAA, both collectives of public relations professionals. Why has helping to sort of tell the cable industry story been important to you?
Kiley: I think it’s a great story. The cable industry has a great story to tell. And I think the more I can help them tell C-SPAN’s story, the better it is for C-SPAN, right? And I think that C-SPAN’s story is so good that it will really help the cable industry shine. And this is truly incredible. What they’ve done to deliver this to so many homes, and for so many people, and for so much content, for so long. And I think in many cases, the way that got started was, as I was the affiliate sales guy, not a communicator at that time, I was affiliate sales, but I would, in working with big MSOs, the marketing people weren’t always all that interested in C-SPAN. We weren’t doing acquisition campaigns, we weren’t supporting their efforts in quite the same way other programmers were, right? The programming people, who I would go and negotiate an affiliation agreement with, we were an easy deal. Not a huge dollar deal, it’s very straightforward, we were not tough negotiators, you know, we would go in and essentially, everybody gets the same deal. So we’d get there pretty quickly, and on very friendly terms. So I was looking within these companies, who could be my advocate? Who could be there to talk about C-SPAN, and talk about the good things that C-SPAN was doing with the bus, with C-SPAN Classroom, these other initiatives that we would do, and these partnerships in the community. And I found the PR, and government relations people, the communications staff, they were kin to my spirit, right?
Schley: It was your sweet spot, yes.
Kiley: They — yes! They got that. And so, when those meetings were taking place about what channel might be cut, or what channels are we going to add, or what channels should we now put on in HD, I would ask those leaders, many of whom I just mentioned, to be my advocate in that room. And even if they couldn’t advocate for us, let me know when those discussions are taking place within your company, let me know who the key decision makers are. If you can just send me in their direction, give me a little nudge to say, you should really be talking to this guy right now, because we’re about to launch a whole slew of channels on things, it’s hugely beneficial. And them advocating for us, them steering us in the right direction, them being sort of an intelligence officer within their companies, to support us, incredibly valued and appreciated.
Schley: I want to talk about a big subject that confronted your life and C-SPAN’s progression was this thing called the internet, and its ability, ultimately, to distribute video of pretty high fidelity. Can you just talk, before we lose you, about how internet video and streaming changed the equation for C-SPAN, and how you guys ended up sort of grappling with this beast?
Kiley: It has been something to grapple with. It’s a, it is the ultimate luxury, and beneficiary, for someone who produces so much content that we own the rights to. It’s also a terrific business challenge, because so much of the content is on the internet, and essentially available at no cost to anyone. So, why does a cable operator continue to say, I want these television channels, and fund it? It’s a great, great question for us. We, C-SPAN, since the earliest days, started to stream video on the internet. And initially, the affiliates loved that, because they wanted to start to sell broadband, they wanted to sell high-speed connections to customers. And the smart ones saw right away that video was a great way to do that, you know? Mail was one thing, and beginning of websites was one thing, but being able to show video, and showing people how quickly and easily they could watch video was great. So, C-SPAN actually was sort of in the forefront of putting a lot of video out there, and cable broadband sales people would use C-SPAN as an example and say look at this, wouldn’t you like to have something like this in your home?
Kiley: C-SPAN has, initially through Purdue University, an archives, and we broke off from them, since 1987, has recorded, first on VHS tapes, every minute of the coverage that we’ve done. It’s now 235,000 hours of content, tens of thousands of individuals, and it’s all digitized now, and sits on servers and in the cloud, in an archive of all that content. So, anyone that’s ever appeared on C-SPAN has their own biography page, and any event we’ve covered, from Supreme Court confirmation hearings, through political debates, to conventions, all the political campaigns —
Kiley: — all the hearings, all of that is available online. All of it keyword searchable. We take the closed captioning to create sort of a transcript to each of these things. And so, you can type in a date, you can type in a month, you can type in a person, you can type in a topic, and narrow down and find right when Judge Bork said something interesting, or that you’re looking for. So if a teacher in a classroom says, “Do you think the next Supreme Court Justice is going to get Borked?” And the kids all go, you know, what’s a Bork? Boom, within a few minutes, a teacher could be showing them video of Judge Bork at those hearings. It’s a great, great tool and resource. There’s great stories about what historians, teachers, junior levels and up through college, and in grad school, are doing with these archives to help put perspective to today’s things. There’s great stories about what journalists are doing to say, Senator McCain, what did you say yesterday, versus what did you say in the ’80s and ’90s?
Schley: It’s there.
Kiley: Right. It’s all right there. And it’s used for a myriad of reasons. So we’re incredibly proud of that. And I think in the long run, that archives, and its existence, and its continuation going forward, might be the most important, or most valuable thing C-SPAN has. Right now, it’s a difficult business challenge, because it’s beautifully available on the web. So to balance the business of C-SPAN, us being paid that license fee from affiliates, what we did, about four years ago now, is we authenticated, or made for sign-in only, reserved for customers of our affiliates, access to the live streams of the channels.
Schley: You have to be —
Kiley: You have to be a cable or satellite subscriber to a video package with C-SPAN on it to get access to watch the live channels on television.
Kiley: Or on the web. That was fine, and that’s very important for our business. But as a public service, what if we put Congress behind a paywall? What if we put those hearings and things the president is doing, behind that paywall? How would that be perceived? And would that really be the right thing for white hat, nonprofit C-SPAN, to do?
Kiley: So the board, I think, in a, just an incredible bit of wisdom and generosity, and smart political sense, said, you’re right C-SPAN, you can take this dual route where you authenticate the live streams of the channels, so if you want to watch anything that C-SPAN’s producing, our coverage of a nongovernment event, the interview programs, the history programs, the book programs with authors, all that, if you want to watch that live, you’ve got to sign in as a subscriber. But the public affairs things, the coverage of the Congress, the House and the Senate, all the hearings that we do, anything the President’s doing, that remains free and in the clear to any comer on our website.
Kiley: As, essentially, a gift of our distributors to democracy. You know? It might sound silly, but think about it, that’s really what we believe it is.
Schley: You know, I don’t think it’s widely appreciated how you were on really the early cusp of internet video, predating I think the involvement of a lot of other commercially supported channels.
Kiley: We were very early, yes.
Schley: And that’s been, I think, when you look at your career, and your path, sort of true all the way along. C-SPAN has been this sort of beacon that’s kind of, if not led, been part of the seminal evolution, right, of the industry, in the modern era.
Kiley: I think, I mean there was just a few channels up, I think C-SPAN was the fifth or sixth channel to go up. So there was no ESPN, there was no CNN, there was none of those other early channels. MTV, all of those came later. So just having a relatively niche-oriented focused network was something very, very different. The idea of doing things like taking viewer calls, the idea of putting our camera in a lot of places that no one ever assumed there should be a camera, from different think tank discussions, or in a radio host’s studio. We put Larry King on television in 1980, doing his late night Mutual radio programs. Then, you know, developing — C-SPAN’s certainly not known for its fancy spinning screens and things, all that, so we really haven’t innovated in those ways. But C-SPAN’s been very innovative in the use of technology over time that the rest of the television news business has followed. Particularly in covering the kinds of events we do. It used to be, with our crews, you would send four, five, six man crews into the field. You know, and there would be several people that would run camera, there’d be a director, there’d be a couple people doing audio, and one person would be in charge of all the lights, and it was a big setup. Now, on the Hill, most of the rooms have original lights, most of them are wired, so it’s just a plug in for the sound, and the microphones and all. And we introduced a whole lot of robotic cameras there. So, you’ll see down in front of the dais, a robotic camera that’s aimed straight up at the person testifying.
Schley: Yes, yes.
Kiley: I mean, if you think back to the ’80s, to hearings, Clarence Thomas is the classic example, the camera’s off to the side and you’re looking at him from the side.
Schley: That’s the angle.
Kiley: That’s different, right? What perception is that giving the viewer when you’re looking at someone from the side, instead of straight on? So we put the camera down low, right up front, with a straight head and shoulders shot of the person testifying, there’s a manned camera in the back of the hearing room, looking straight at the chairman, up on the dais, and then a camera off to the side that can get straight shots of each of the other people on the dais. So, what that did, instead of taking great big expensive cameras, three or four of them, into a hearing room, we got much smaller, much less expensive cameras.
Kiley: So you keep the same amount of people, but you’re able to go cover so many more events. Because this is far less — it’s unobtrusive, it’s easy, people forget the cameras are even there. And we’re able, with now two people on a field crew, or three, to produce that event where it used to take five or six. Enabled us to really expand the amount of content we were able to get. It was pretty innovative at the time.
Schley: It is. And I think it’s a telling anecdote for the nimbleness you guys have always had to kind of bring to bear, because you, you know, it’s not like you have an unending budget to work with, right?
Kiley: We do not. We grew from that 50 or 60 C-SPAN staffers, to about 270 today. And we’ve been there for about a decade. We’ve kept it very tight on that. And resources are incredibly tight for us.
Kiley: You know, we are, I like to say, very small c, conservatively managed. Rob Kennedy is sort of the financial steward of the network, and he’s a University of Illinois engineer, and a University of Chicago MBA, and he brings great discipline and efficiencies to the way we operate throughout, from our insurance, and health plans, and our real estate stuff that we have, and equipment, and the people. We’ve been very, very strict on not growing too fast, and too large with the number of people. And that brings all sorts of challenges, but as I say, now so many of us have been there over 30 years, and so many of the field crew guys, and women, are 20 and 30-year people, we’ve stayed because we believe in that mission.
Kiley: It’s been really cool in that we’ve been able to do so many different things, and grow our own careers, even within one network. By having to do so many different things in the day, you know, there’s no crew chief that doesn’t still — they don’t mind laying the gaffers tape over the wires, right?
Kiley: Everyone’s willing to pitch in and do these things together, in this mission-oriented cause. And it means we’ve all been learning, right? We’ve all been having to adapt to new equipment. We all have to find ways of doing the things we might see other networks doing, with all of their bells and whistles. We have to figure out how to do some of those things on our own. It may take us a little bit longer to get there. We were slower to get to HD, it was a huge expense rolling that out to affiliates. But when we got there, our quality, the look of our product, is as good as anyone’s, you know? And so, it’s an interesting place to constantly be squeezed, but being squeezed forces you to find efficiencies, and gives you all kinds of opportunities to be innovative and creative, and do things differently.
Schley: And do you guys get a chance to take the proverbial retreat, and kind of contemplate what’s next, or theorize about the future, and how do you deal with this change in environment?
Kiley: Not too much. There are no sort of corporate retreats where we fly off to.
Schley: It would be very un-C-SPAN-like.
Kiley: Yes, it really would. We, not in every weekly meeting that we have is either like, with my different groups, or as I meet with Rob and Susan, or see Brian, do we talk about long-term stuff, but we do it fairly regularly. I think we all feel like we could do it more. Just last week, we have a digital strategy group that is Rob Kennedy, Susan Swain, myself, Brian sits on it, and Bruce Collins, our attorney, sits on it.
Schley: Fun. Right.
Kiley: And then our head of digital media, a guy named Richard Weinstein, who’s another longtime C-SPAN-er, came up through the field, and now operates all of our website and digital properties, he sits in on it. We have a guy that used to have that job named Barkley Kern, who’s still with us as a consultant, and so we sat down and sort of said, you know, five and eight years from now, where are we going to be? How are we going to be, you know, where is, to me, where are the cable bundles going to go? What’s happening with bundling and skinny packages, and where, you know, what’s C-SPAN’s subscriber pattern look like? How are you hanging on versus the others? And that’s our revenue model, it is based on that. So where are we with that? How do we balance that with consumers’ demands that we have a Roku channel, or that we have a channel on Apple TV? How much content should we make available on YouTube and Facebook Live, and all these other platforms that are really important for us? Balancing with that. And where are we on those today? What’s our strategy? And what’s our strategy, is it leading us to where we need to be? So, we do have those discussions. I don’t think you could ever have them enough, at this time of change in the industry. But certainly we do them.
Schley: Well over the run, over the 30-plus years, you’ve really seen nothing but change. I mean and sometimes it’s been sort of maybe visible in the distance, and other times, utterly unpredictable, so this is nothing new in a certain respect, right?
Kiley: It is nothing new. And that’s, you know, I remain very optimistic for this industry, for the programming, content side of this industry, and for C-SPAN. I think that technology, and the pressures that’s coming on, and this sort of rampant growth of different distribution means, and the way younger people are looking for content in different ways, I have every confidence that C-SPAN will find its way in that world. It’s going to have to be different.
Kiley: I mean the glory of what we do, of just presenting things as they are, here it is, eight hours of tax markup, and the Senate finance committee, you know, we’re doing that today, it — that’s not for everybody. That we continue to do that, and provide that, and have that in that archives, and show that, is critically important to our mission. I think that we will always do that. But finding ways to share through VOD with our affiliates, a collection of here’s the important moments of that day, and a sort of almost long-form way, maybe it’s 4 minutes, or 10 or 12 minutes of the key 3 or 4 minute segments of that hearing. We’re doing some of this today, and sharing it on Twitter, sharing it on Facebook, and letting an audience then engage with those moments, we’ll find ways of serving an audience with those clips, always. Always with a link back to watch the whole thing.
Kiley: And never, ever with us telling you this was the most important. This is why it’s important. Not getting our spin on it. But, this is what’s making news. This is what’s going to be in the headlines tomorrow, here’s the 4, 10, 12 minutes from the hearing that are the meat of what’s making news. You can find it there, if you want more, we have it all.
Schley: Pursuing new avenues about retaining what you called, I loved the word the glory of C-SPAN, and abiding by a mission that is now close to 40 years long. It’s a really appropriate end note, and I want to thank you Peter, for not only walking down Memory Lane, but offering some insight into where the industry is headed. Really a great conversation.
Kiley: Thank you Stewart.
Schley: Peter Kiley of C-SPAN has helped this network grow almost since its inception. Our pleasure to have you, and for The Cable Center, I’m Stewart Schley.
END OF INTERVIEW