POSTED: Tuesday, March 16, 2010 - 2:46pm
UPDATED: Thursday, April 22, 2010 - 3:12am
WASHINGTON — Researchers, political satirists and partisan mudslingers, take note: C-Span has uploaded virtually every minute of its video archives to the Internet.
The archives, at C-SpanVideo.org, cover 23 years of history and five presidential administrations and are sure to provide new fodder for pundits and politicians alike. The network will formally announce the completion of the C-Span Video Library on Wednesday.
Having free online access to the more than 160,000 hours of C-Span footage is “like being able to Google political history using the ‘I Feel Lucky’ button every time,” said Rachel Maddow, the liberal MSNBC host.
Ed Morrissey, a senior correspondent for the conservative blog Hot Air (hotair.com), said, “The geek in me wants to find an excuse to start digging.”
No other cable network is likely to give away its precious archives on the Internet. (Even “Book TV” is available.) But C-Span is one of a kind, a creation of the cable industry that records every Congressional session, every White House press briefing and other acts of official Washington.
The online archives reinforce what some would call the Web’s single best quality: its ability to recall seemingly every statement and smear. And it is even more powerful when the viewer can rewind the video.
The C-Span founder, Brian Lamb, said in an interview here last week that the archives were an extension of the network’s public service commitment.
“That’s where the history will be,” Mr. Lamb said.
C-Span has been uploading its history for several years, working its way to 1987, when its archives were established at Purdue University, Mr. Lamb’s alma mater.
The archive staff now operates from an office park in West Lafayette, Ind., where two machines that can turn 16 hours of tapes into digital files each hour have been working around the clock to move C-Span’s programs online. They are now finishing the 1987 catalog.
“This is the archive’s coming of age, in a way, because it’s now so accessible,” said Robert Browning, director of the archives.
Historically, the $1 million-a-year operation has paid for itself partly by selling videotapes and DVDs to journalists, campaign strategists and others.
Mr. Browning acknowledges that video sales have waned as more people have viewed clips online. “On the other hand, there are a lot of things people now watch that they never would have bought,” he said.
The archives’ fans include Ms. Maddow, who called it gold. “It’s raw footage of political actors in their native habitat, without media personalities mediating viewers’ access,” she wrote in an e-mail message.
Similarly, Mr. Morrissey said the archives made “for a really intriguing reference set.” He pointed out, however, that the volume of videos “is so vast that finding valuable references may be a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
C-Span executives said they hoped that its search filters would be up to the task. Mr. Lamb said, “You can see if politicians are saying one thing today, and 15 years ago were saying another thing.”
He added, “Journalists can feast on it.”
One of the Web site’s features, the Congressional Chronicle, shows which members of Congress have spoken on the House and Senate floors the most, and the least. Each senator and representative has a profile page. Using the data already available, some newspapers have written about particularly loquacious local lawmakers.
C-Span was established in 1979, but there are few recordings of its earliest years. Those “sort of went down the drain,” Mr. Browning said. But he does have about 10,000 hours of tapes from before 1987, and he will begin reformatting them for the Web soon. Those tapes include Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign speeches and the Iran-Contra hearings.
In a tour of the site last week, Mr. Browning said the various uses of the archives were hard to predict. He found that a newly uploaded 1990 United Nations address by the Romanian president Ion Iliescu was quickly discovered and published by several Romanian bloggers.
While C-Span does not receive Nielsen ratings, a recent poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that 52 percent of voters said they watched it at least once in a while. The poll did not distinguish among C-Span’s three channels. The original one, C-Span, shows every House of Representatives session; C-Span2 does the same for the Senate; and C-Span3 shows committee hearings, briefings, conferences and other events.
The archives of all three channels have been mostly uploaded, but they can only be streamed. Mr. Browning said video downloads were on his agenda. Users can embed the videos on other Web sites and clip small sound bites for repeat viewing.
The clips can help citizens gain access to important information, of course, but they can also be entertaining.
Last month one of the top clips on the C-Span site was from President Obama’s health care summit meeting, but it wasn’t of a comment about proposed legislation, it was of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. caught on a microphone saying, “It’s easy being vice president.” A spokesman for the vice president told reporters that Mr. Biden was “obviously joking.”
Regardless, the archives are a reminder that the cameras are always recording. For politicians or anyone else captured by C-Span, Mr. Browning said, “there’s no more deniability.”