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Retooled for Recess

Breaks Allow C-SPAN to Take Viewers Outside the Beltway

Call it a nerdy, insider Capitol Hill question, but it’s recess for Congress, and as the pace of activity noticeably slows along the halls of the House and Senate this week, it’s still worth asking: If C-SPAN’s central mission is to give complete gavel-to-gavel coverage of House and

Senate floor activities, then, on weeks such as this, just what does the Hill’s hometown network do to fill the air time when Congress gavels itself out of order and into recess?

The answer lies in the hands of C-SPAN’s Leta Hix.

Seven years ago, C-SPAN decided that it needed a producer specifically tasked with the job of figuring out the best way to cover the business of Congress when Congress goes home. So, since the 1998 July Fourth break, Hix has been planning recess programming for both C-SPAN and the C-SPAN2 networks.

According to Hix, there’s a couple of different ways of approaching the task.

“One of the things we want to accomplish is to give people a chance to see events outside the Beltway,” she said. “We’re very Capitol Hill oriented when Congress is in, but when Congress is out we like to take that opportunity to get outside the Beltway and air events and speeches from all over the country so people can get an understanding of some of the issues that are out there.”

Doing that often requires a mixture of taped and live programming — Hix said the ratio is about 50/50 on recess breaks — and the network will often send camera crews out to town hall meetings or local speeches by Members.

For example, during this year’s spring recess, C-SPAN aired interviews from its “Students and Leaders” series in which the network partnered with Time Warner Cable in Los Angeles to invite leaders from a variety of fields to “return to the classroom” to discuss their commitment to public service with local high schoolers.

“We like to take the opportunity to see people that we normally see on Capitol Hill outside their Capitol Hill environments,” Hix said. “We want to give people a chance to hear [Members] talk about things outside Congressional issues. Let them hear speeches they might give in their personal lives and put some context to what is normally seen when Congress is in.”

A past August recess series followed then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as he fulfilled his annual promise to visit all 66 counties in the Mount Rushmore State.

But that’s not to say that the issues that dominate C-SPAN’s airwaves when Congress is in session ever really stop when Congress is on recess.

According to Kate Mills, C-SPAN’s director of programming operations, before the days when Members flew home every weekend, they would instead use their recess breaks to pile into cars, head out of town and not to be heard from again until after the recess break. But now “a lot goes on during those Congressional breaks … it’s really changed over time.”

For example, this week, Hix will work much of her programming around regional Base Realignment and Closure hearings. The first, a pre-recorded hearing from Portland, Ore., will air today. On Wednesday, C-SPAN2 will air a live BRAC hearing from Boston, followed by a Thursday BRAC hearing back in D.C.

And besides live hearings, Congressional breaks also allow Hix to use previously taped programming that might have been originally bumped due to the unpredictability of the House and Senate’s schedules. This includes coverage of events such as consumer advocacy issue summits or C-SPAN’s new effort to cover commencement speeches by Members.

“One thing about the July Fourth break or a short break like the spring recess is a lot of times there are great hearings that will happen [the week before] and the House and Senate are in really late all day and into the evening trying to finish up legislation and we can’t get those hearings on at a good time,” Mills said.

Mills added that planning out upcoming recess programs often is a matter of developing themes that viewers are interested in.

“Often we have events that maybe happened over the course of several months and [on recess breaks] we can put them into a block of programming that may air over a course of a week to give people who are interested in that topic a chance to see it back to back and understand how it unfolded rather than trying to remember what happened, say, four months ago,” Hix said.

Last August, the 9/11 commission hearings, which happened over the course of the entire year, dominated a large part of C-SPAN’s recess programming.

Viewer feedback also factors into recess programming planning.

“We get requests through viewer services of things people would like to see again,” Hix said. “If there’s an overwhelming interest, or if an event has already happened yet there’s a relevant reason to run it again … we’ll run it.”

And one of this week’s subjects of popular demand is sure to be the Supreme Court after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced her retirement on Friday.

But Hix is all over that.

She already had plans to rerun a previously recorded event held earlier this year at the National Archives in which Justices Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer and O’Connor spoke about the role and operation of the Supreme Court and the state of civics education in America.

You see, anticipating the news when most everyone else on Capitol Hill is anticipating vacation time is part of Hix job.

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