Oh, say can you see C-Span?

Though it turns 25 Friday, C-Span (Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network) is chronically misunderstood by much of the American public, says Brian Lamb, chairman and chief executive officer.

Many assume that the no-frills Washington-centric channel “is owned by the government and that we get taxpayer money,” Lamb says. “That never has been the case, and it never will be.”

In fact, the cable industry has paid the freight for C-Span since its 1979 launch with a staff of four and a reach of 3.5 million homes. With 265 employees today, C-Span spans 88 million homes – making it the eighth-largest cable network.

In the early days, C-Span carried only live sessions of the House of Representatives. (Fun fact: On the network’s debut, then-Rep. Al Gore of Tennessee was the first member recognized to speak.)

Now it’s spread over three networks, running unfiltered live coverage of the Senate, congressional hearings, special events, elections and news briefings, as well as weekly discussions of books.

Still, even Lamb, 62, who helped create C-Span, acknowledges that the network is an acquired taste.

“We’re just an odd duck. We’re not what some people are used to seeing on television. Television is entertainment. Even TV news is entertainment.

“People who watch us understand that we’re providing a window into political culture and into the government doing its thing.”

C-Span has no commercials (and therefore no ratings). It has no mandate to make money. Not much danger in that regard. It gets a nickel per subscriber per month – lowest among all basic networks, Lamb says. The highest: ESPN, at $2.70.

“Our goal is to break even,” he says. “We don’t make a lot of money here, but we’re proud of what we do.”

And if you’re looking to become a star, you need not apply. There “are no stars” at C-Span. Morning call-in programs feature a rotation of nine hosts, including Lamb.

“Nobody owns a show,” he says. “If you allow people to become personalities, the next thing you know, they’ll have agents, and then the agents will demand $3 million. The system would break down the minute an agent called.”

C-Span says it has 34.5 million weekly viewers, about half of whom are over 50. Cher called in several months ago, Lamb says, and he’s heard that Paul Newman, Peter Falk and “the Rob Reiner types in Hollywood” are regulars.

Episode two of HBO’s “The Sopranos” drew 10.0 million viewers Sunday – down 2.1 million from the show’s fifth-season opener March 7.

With all its marketing targeted for the debut, HBO expected the decline, a network rep says, labeling it “an absolutely normal occurrence.”

The episode featured the introduction of Steve Buscemi as Tony’s (James Gandolfini) cousin Tony Blundetto, just sprung from the big house.

It scored the third-highest audience for any HBO telecast this year, behind “The Sopranos”‘ season premiere and “Sex and the City’s” series finale Feb. 22, which had 10.6 million viewers.

Madonna’s Maverick Films has signed with NBC to develop and co-produce a four-hour mini-series about the ’80s.

The story line will follow a group of folks in their 20s through the decade, beginning with John Lennon’s assassination in 1980 and ending with the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89.

No word on the extent of Madge’s participation. “The ’60s” and “The ’70s” did great box office for NBC.

Former Comedy Central boss Doug Herzog will rejoin the all-comedy network in May as president, it was announced Tuesday. He replaces Larry Divney, who will retire. During Herzog’s 1995-98 tenure, he helped launch such cult hits as “The Daily Show,” now hosted by Jon Stewart, and “South Park.”

(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-03-16-04 1851EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.