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How Congress' bad Periscopes brought out the best in C-SPAN

How Congress' bad Periscopes brought out the best in C-SPAN


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It is rare that I'm compelled to seek out C-SPAN live coverage. Today was a little different. House Democrats staged a dramatic sit-in to demand action on gun control, chanting "no bill, no break." But after a recess was called, C-SPAN's live video footage was cut off by House Republicans. And suddenly my window into this day long event was cut short.

Soon my attention shifted to Twitter, where I caught this tweet:

As a video editor, I was curious to see how C-SPAN would integrate Periscope and Facebook Live into their broadcast. It was a disaster — and I was hooked. As broadcast video goes, it was some of the worst I'd ever seen.

There were questionable framing choices, like this one:

C-SPAN Periscope

There was the phone microphone picking up the whispers of anyone nearby almost as well as the person speaking at the podium. The broadcast had this weird, ASMR feel to it. You could hear people close by whispering to each other and occasionally to whoever was speaking, reminding members to face the camera. (Listen here.)

All of this was punctuated by frequent interruptions in the stream, which C-SPAN's anchor highlighted by saying "this is the joy of technology."

"This is the joy of technology"

I've had to produce and direct a few live productions in my lifetime, and I can tell you they are the worst. By the end of it, all you remember is the mistakes you've made. For those working at C-SPAN, this was a very hectic day, and I imagine they'll look back wishing they could have given House Representatives a few lessons in broadcast production techniques.

Normally, C-SPAN would have multiple angles to cut to using HD cameras mounted in different angles around the House. Their microphones would provide clean audio of a single speaker, and the entire thing wouldn't drop out when too many people were trying to watch. But I'd argue that C-SPAN losing all of that broadcast polish today made for one of its most compelling broadcasts to date. There was something punk rock about it — an illicit broadcast, smuggled out of the people's house, just barely making it to its intended audience.

This isn't the first time that House leaders turned off C-SPAN's cameras in the middle of a heated debate. In 2008, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi turned the lights and microphones off while Republicans argued for a vote on offshore drilling.

Even then, though, House Republicans were finding ways to have their voices heard. Rep. John Shadegg (R-AZ) managed to find the chamber's public address system and started typing in random codes. Somehow he managed to stumble upon the correct one, turning the microphones back on for a brief time. "I love this, Congress can be so boring," Shadegg said afterward, according to Politico. "This is a kick."

And that's how I feel today: this was a kick to watch. Just like the infamous BuzzFeed exploding watermelon broadcast, there's something exciting about watching a feed that could blow up at any time. C-SPAN's mission is to take the normally dull process of governance and make it accessible to all — even when the government has other ideas. By falling back to Congress members' broadcasts on Periscope (and later, Facebook Live), C-SPAN stayed true to that ideal. And the fact that it was messy made it all the more exciting.