imperial presidency
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Robert X. Browning

In 1979, a new US cable television network was created. It was called C-SPAN, an acronym reflecting its origin. The Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network was created to record public affairs programming and deliver it by cable and satellite into US homes. Cable was a nascent industry at that time. It began mostly as a retransmission of broadcast signals into areas that had poor terrestrial reception. The satellite revolution of the 1970s known as “Open Skies” made it possible for new networks to deliver their signals to home satellite dishes, but more importantly, to cable operators who were offered new exclusive, nonbroadcast networks that they could sell to the local subscribers. Home Box Office, or HBO, was successful delivering movies this way, which allowed commercial-free content offered for a premium. Cable operators were thus interested in this new satellite-delivered content that would distinguish cable and give customers reasons to subscribe. Brian Lamb was one of these network entrepreneurs, who with a background in radio, broadcast television, public affairs, satellite policy, and cable television, envisioned a cable satellite network that would bring unedited, Washington, DC–based public affairs programming delivered over cable television systems to American homes. He convinced some cable television executives, with a complementary entrepreneur spirit, to invest in his idea. The result was a nonprofit network dedicated to public affairs events in their entirety. It would be paid for by monthly, per-home license fees paid by the cable operators to the network in exchange for receiving the television signal. This, however, was just half of the story of the origin of C-SPAN. While Brian Lamb was developing his idea and thinking of how content from Washington, DC, events could be delivered via satellite to cable systems, another group was also working on a similar idea. The year was 1977 and the group was the United States House of Representatives. The mid-1970s were a heady time for the US Congress. President Nixon resigned in 1974 after congressional investigations of the 1972 Watergate break in. Congress passed the far-reaching War Powers Act and Congressional Budget Impoundment Act over presidential vetoes to strengthen Congress over what noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote was the “Imperial Presidency.” When the US House of Representatives first televised its proceedings on 19 March 1979, C-SPAN began transmitting the signal via satellite and the new network was available.

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