Why C-SPAN’s Camera Work Is Suddenly So Interesting

For decades, the network has asked to be able to film all of what happens in the House chamber, not just the person speaking. Thanks to the Kevin McCarthy Speaker battle, it is finally happening, in all its chaotic glory.
AOC and Gaetz
Screenshot: C-SPAN via Twitter

The fight over the House speakership is now in its third day, with Republican Kevin McCarthy losing an astounding seven votes in a row. The darkly comic proceedings have been captured in full view by roaming cameras of the House floor, and broadcast on C-SPAN, which has captured such moments as progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez conferring with far-right GOP member Paul Gosar who once tweeted an anime video of him killing her. Many of these moments have gone viral and have caused people to ask why the videos we get out of Congress aren't always this exciting.


This speaker fight is an extraordinary event for many reasons, but an underappreciated one is central to the way the media is covering the event and the general public is witnessing it. For the first time ever, independent media cameras are capturing a contentious, unscripted political fight on the House floor.

Normally, these types of moments would not be captured on film, much less broadcast on TV and posted to the internet. There are long-standing rules that restrict what can be filmed and broadcast during Congressional proceedings, typically restricted to the person speaking and extremely wide angles where people are not easily distinguishable. But, during this extraordinary political event, three C-SPAN cameras have been able to film whatever they like, from reaction shots of McCarthy losing another vote to following meandering conversations between unlikely conferees across the floor.

“Because we have cameras in the chamber, we’re able to tell the story of what’s happening on the House floor,” said Ben O’Connell, director of editorial operations at C-SPAN, in an interview with Motherboard. “You’re able to see the migrating scrums of Congressmen on the House floor as they negotiate with each other. You’re able to see extraordinary conversations” such as the one between Ocasio-Cortez and Gosar. “And you’re able to see conversations that sometimes look somewhat contentious among some members. You’d never be able to see that with the standard House feed.”


Some prominent Twitter voices have made it sound like this is only possible because of the House speaker power vacuum, temporarily resulting in a filming free-for-all in the halls of power that will only last until a speaker is elected and exerts dictatorial control over filming techniques. But that’s not the case. Instead, the reason for this confluence of events, much like the speaker fight itself, boils down to arcane rules and procedures initially created so politicians could exert control over their own image.

“Typically, during normal run of the mill House sessions, the cameras are all totally controlled by government employees,” O’Connell said, referring to the cameras run by the House Recording Studio. That footage is used by networks, news programs, and most notably C-SPAN, which is not a government entity but a non-profit funded by telecom companies that provides “live gavel-to-gavel proceedings” of the House and Senate among other public policy programming. For House proceedings, footage is captured by the House Recording Studio and broadcast by C-SPAN.


Since the beginning of televised Congressional proceedings in 1979—the Senate, in typical fashion, followed unfashionably late in 1986—there have been strict rules about what the cameras can and cannot capture. During normal proceedings, cameras focus on whoever is speaking at the podium and must ignore everything else, even though reporters and spectators in the gallery have the entire chamber within view and can report what they see, a discrepancy that has become even more important in the internet age.

“​​On a pretty regular basis, I’ll see tweets from reporters sitting in the gallery saying, ‘I see Congressman X speaking with Congressman Y working on some amendment,’ and we can’t see it,” O’Connell said. “We’d love to see it.”

For decades, C-SPAN has formally asked Congress for greater range of camera coverage, permitting such staples of filming techniques invented more than a century ago like pans and reaction shots from other members in the chamber. 

“Currently, house floor debates are not in full public view because private news media cameras are still not permitted in the House chamber,” wrote C-SPAN Chairperson Brian Lamb in a 2010 letter to House leadership asking for access to health care legislation debates. “C-SPAN’s request is for the addition of a few small robotically-operated cameras in the House chamber.” Its requests have always been denied.


However, there are different rules for special events like joint sessions, State of the Union addresses, and the first day of session for swearing in ceremonies, where VIPs still want to be seen even if they are not heard. For these events, TV networks and other accredited media will ask the speaker’s office for permission to bring their own cameras into the chambers. These requests are almost always granted on a “pool” basis, a common arrangement in political journalism where a reporter or TV crew is allowed access on the condition that they share all the footage and reportage with the rest of the accredited media. For all of O’Connell’s 22 years at C-SPAN, they’ve been the pool camera crews for the speaker vote. 

In that sense, and only in that sense, this year’s speaker vote has gone just as all others in recent history. C-SPAN has three cameras in the House chambers and they can stay there until the Speaker is elected and new members have been sworn in. Of course, what is different this year is that it was not a routine, two- or three-hour long event. It is now on its third day, and the proceedings are highly contentious. 

O’Connell says his crew are welcoming this brief window of opportunity. “First, we’re absolutely thrilled people are paying attention,” he said. “This is really important stuff and it is a thrill to be able to show it to people, to tell that story. And internally, what we are doing minute to minute, there are tons of conversations about what’s working, what we might want to tweak, things like that, just operational stuff, that’s an ongoing conversation.”

To his knowledge, C-SPAN has no plans to send the future House speaker—whoever that may be—a letter immediately after getting elected asking for the more permissive camera rules to be permanent. But the network’s push for greater transparency and media access has been constant for decades, he says, and it will continue.

“We firmly believe that having independent media in the House and Senate chambers and Supreme Court for that matter leads to greater transparency to the American voter,” O’Connell said. “They would be able to see what their member is doing in the chamber even if they’re not speaking. For major pieces of legislation, I can’t imagine a downside to that.”