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C-SPAN’s Bookmobile

‘Book TV’ Bus Promotes Channel and Reading

Terence Bilal has been driving tour buses across the country for almost 17 years. For the first 15 years of his career, his passengers were rock ’n’ roll groups on tour from one venue to the next. But these days Bilal’s passengers are a bit less raucous.

In 2003, Bilal took his son, an avid reader, to an event sponsored by C-SPAN and the local library in their hometown of Topeka, Kan. There, Bilal took a tour of one of two C-SPAN School Buses — which were in town that day to promote C-SPAN as an educational resource — and inquired about whether C-SPAN was looking for any good bus drivers.

Not soon after, Bilal traded rock stars for political junkies, and has thoroughly enjoyed bringing the world of Washington, D.C., politics into small towns across America ever since.

On Tuesday evening, at the Fall for the Book festival at George Mason University, Bilal was at the wheel of the latest addition to C-SPAN’s bus fleet, the “Book TV” Bus.

The new bus — actually one of the old C-SPAN School Buses with a half-million-dollar face-lift — is debuting at book events throughout Washington this week, including the National Book Festival Saturday on the National Mall. Outfitted with a live production studio and the ability to transform into a classroom lecture hall, the mission of the new bus is to promote nonfiction reading while highlighting “Book TV,” the 48 hours of noncommercial programming that airs every weekend on C-SPAN2.

“Specifically with the School Buses, we wanted them to be modern classrooms … this is a marketing vehicle. We want to impress people, so we thought we’d lead with the technology and the ‘wow’ factor of TV on a bus, and that’s why the dominant feature here is the studio,” said Steve Roth, C-SPAN’s marketing manager.

And the idea seemed to be working at the “Book TV” Bus’s debut Tuesday night. The three onboard cameras and nine televisions — including a large plasma screen facing out where one of the bus’s windows would normally be — along with an impressive sound system both inside and outside the bus, drew the attention of most everyone waiting in line outside George Mason University’s Center for the Arts Concert Hall for a reading by Khaled Hosseini, author of “The Kite Runner.”

But why, one might ask, does C-SPAN, a noncommercial network funded by the cable industry as a public service, need to market itself?

“The bus is about attracting viewers, but in doing that it’s also demonstrating the value of C-SPAN to the cable industry,” Roth said. “In a way we owe it to them to get out there and push a service they’re paying for. … Even though we’re not a profit-maximizing network, we can’t take our survival for granted.”

And as the new bus travels the country marketing “Book TV,” the goal is also to capture a little bit of literary life as it goes on in small towns and communities across America. Interviews with local authors or book club members shot from the bus will soon begin augmenting “Book TV’s” weekend programming.

“We want to find out what the stories are out there,” Roth said.

Right now, the “Book TV” Bus is booked at events through Christmas and will be attending book festivals across the country every weekend through Thanksgiving. After finishing up in Washington, Bilal will steer the bus north on Sunday to book events in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

And while C-SPAN crews rotate on and off the bus every two weeks and different hosts will shoot segments from inside the traveling studio as it travels from city to city, Bilal is the one member of the “Book TV” Bus team who will be on the road full time — not that he minds.

“It’s always great coming into new towns,” Bilal said. “Senators, Congressmen, mayors, when they see the C-SPAN bus pull into their hometowns, they’re always glad we’re in their communities.”