C-SPAN Works Through Major Upgrade
Most television viewers are familiar
with C-SPAN (Cable-Satellite Public
Affairs Network) for its broadcasts of
just about anything to do with the
workings of the U.S. government—especially Congress.
by Bob Kovacs
C-SPAN has three identical master control rooms—this is the control
room for C-SPAN2.
Created by the cable TV industry
in 1979, C-SPAN is chartered as a
non-profit educational organization
funded by cable companies across
the United States and available to
86 million U.S. viewers. Coming as
a surprise to many of those viewers
is that—despite its strong focus on
the U.S. government—C-SPAN is
not a government television operation,
even if all its programming
revolves around the intimate operations
of federal Washington.
Today, C-SPAN employs 275 and produces
three 24-hour cable television channels with programming
increasingly in high-definition. In addition,
there is C-SPAN Radio, available across the
country via XM Satellite Radio, the Internet and
an iPhone app, as well as via FM and HD Radio in
the Washington-Baltimore area.
C-SPAN’s three television channels (called
C-SPAN, C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3) originate from
the organization’s Washington, D.C. complex, a
building it shares with NBC News, MSNBC and
Fox News. Just blocks from the U.S. Capitol,
C-SPAN has dozens of dedicated circuits (mostly
fiber) wired into Congress and into the many
committee rooms quartered in the buildings
adjacent to the Capitol where the senators’ and
representatives’ offices are located.
In the middle of a $15 million renovation of
its television systems, C-SPAN is working with
contractor Ascent Media to upgrade just about
everything, while maintaining its gavel-to-gavel
coverage mandated by Congress.
“We’ve been working on this for more than
year and have about 15 to 18 months more to
go,” said Roxane Kerr, vice president of technology
THE FIRST UPGRADES
The first major systems upgraded—with identical
equipment—were the three control rooms that
feed C-SPAN, C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3. Those rooms
have Grass Valley Maestro master control switchers,
Chyron Camio database-driven graphics systems
and monitor walls fed by Miranda Kaleido multiimage
processors. Of course, all three rooms support
high-definition, of which C-SPAN handles in
Small Logitek audio mixers control voice-booth
tasks (each master control room has its own
voice booth), and the switchers use Evertz keyers
for downstream graphic insertion. Grass Valley
Concerto 64×64 routers and RTS intercom systems
round out the primary equipment complement
in the master control rooms.
The rooms are filled with professional-grade
equipment, except for one important component:
monitors. For its monitor walls, C-SPAN
uses Samsung consumer-grade LED-backlit LCD monitors, an increasingly popular trend for professional
control rooms. In the darkened master control rooms
at C-SPAN, high contrast images pop off the monitors,
making it difficult to miss any video problems.
An unexpected and important development within
the federal government occurred while C-SPAN was in
the middle of its long-term upgrade project: the nomination
of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. Because
broadcasts of Senate confirmation hearings have contributed
to C-SPAN’s success, the network requested in early
May that work on the control room be expedited.
Suddenly, the need to broadcast Kagan’s confirmation
hearing became the driving force for Ascent Media
to complete the C-SPAN3 control room as quickly as
possible. Despite the pressures, Ascent Media rose to
the challenge and completed the project by June 21,
timely enough for C-SPAN3 to become the pool feed
for the Kagan hearings.
‘A BUSY PROCESS’
Although the rooms act as master control, they are somewhat
more complicated than the typical master control, said
Mario Patuto, Ascent Media’s senior systems technologist.
“It’s actually a simplified production control room,”
he said. “It’s a pretty busy process for the operator.”
Much remains to be done at C-SPAN for its longterm
project, including moving the sizable equipment
room from its present location to a larger room on the
floor below. Racks filled with Rhozet transcoders, Harris
X50 frame syncs and a variety of encoders and processing
equipment will need to somehow be moved and
integrated on another floor while C-SPAN stays on the
air. The old standard-definition servers now in use may
not make the trip, however.
Ascent Media will do some of the work at its East
Coast headquarters in New Jersey, while a good portion
of the integration will occur on-site at C-SPAN.
One thing that will be preserved and upgraded from
C-SPAN’s current system is a massive Sun StorageTek
archive system that holds 4,000 data cassettes and three
tape drives. The current 200 GB tape cartridges and tape
drives will be upgraded to 2 TB cartridges and drives.
In the new equipment room, dozens of empty
Middle Atlantic equipment racks stand—seemingly
at attention—waiting for their turn at the integration
process. “We will ship many of these racks to
Ascent Media when it’s time to integrate,” Kerr said.
When the equipment room integration occurs, several C-SPAN engineers will work side-by-side with Ascent Media’s staff,
Kerr added. That makes Ascent
Media’s task is to oversee a multiyear,
multi-million dollar equipment
integration which takes
place at two locations separated
by three states, and worked on
by the staffs of two companies.
Roxane Kerr, vice president of technology
for C-SPAN and Richard Fleeson, chief engineer,
stand outside the John Saeman Master
“We have a good feel for
how much labor it takes to get it
done,” Patuto said.
A good relationship between the
integrator and client is important
to minimize misunderstandings
and maximize effort.
“We have a great relationship
with C-SPAN,” said Julia Burton,
vice president of sales and integration
for Ascent Media.
Providing unblinking coverage
of the U.S. government is a massive
undertaking, but C-SPAN has
been doing it with increasing
levels of coverage and technical
skill for more than 30 years.
However, C-SPAN is showing its
age, for much of the network’s
current facilities are worn out
and in dire need of upgrades
which somehow must be completed
at the same time C-SPAN
serves its core mission of keeping
a steady television eye on the
Bob Kovacs can be reached at