Sound and vision blog

16 March 2010

C-SPAN video archive online

President Obama's State of the Union Address, 27 January 2010, from

C-SPAN has put its entire video archive online, 23 years of broadcasting amounting to over 160,000 hours of content. C-SPAN stands for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network. It's an American cable TV network owned and operated by the US cable industry as a free service. It was set up in 1987 to record government proceedings, and its archive documents practically every session of the Senate and the House of Representatives, presidential press briefings and many kinds of public affairs events. The New York Times reports:

“This is the archive’s coming of age, in a way, because it’s now so accessible,” said Robert Browning, director of the archives. Historically, the $1 million-a-year operation has paid for itself partly by selling videotapes and DVDs to journalists, campaign strategists and others. Mr. Browning acknowledges that video sales have waned as more people have viewed clips online. “On the other hand, there are a lot of things people now watch that they never would have bought,” he said. The archives’ fans include Ms. Maddow, who called it gold. “It’s raw footage of political actors in their native habitat, without media personalities mediating viewers’ access,” she wrote in an e-mail message ... C-Span executives said they hoped that its search filters would be up to the task. Mr. Lamb said, “You can see if politicians are saying one thing today, and 15 years ago were saying another thing.” He added, “Journalists can feast on it.”

The site gives the schedule for the three C-SPAN channels (C-SPAN, C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3), the C-SPAN Congressional Chronicle (an index to the C-SPAN video recordings of the House and Senate floor proceedings), a blog, store and extensive search and browse options. There is a simple search option on the front page (which has a drop-down text feature showing summaries with your search term highlighted) and an advanced search option (for which you can add extra fields by clicking) allowing searches to be refined by date, tag, format, title, summary, person, organisation, location etc. You can browse the archive by programme type, series, congressional committee, date, topic, popular programmes and so on. Each record gives title, date, topic, tags, summary, duration (some of them run for hours), sometimes a transcript (generally made from uncorrected closed captioning), programme ID and the number of views. There are handy user features such embedding, sharing, links to biographical details of people featured, and related videos. Videos can be viewed full screen and are of a good quality.

It's a stunning resource, overwhelming in its size, limitless in the opportunities it opens up for American studies, political studies, and just for finding who said what when. What we wouldn't give to have something similar in the UK. Here we've had parliamentary AV recordings since 1978, when the Parliamentary Sound Recording Unit was created. This became the Parliamentary Recording Unit when it added video of the House of Lords in 1986, then the House of Commons in 1989 (the Sound Unit disbanded in 1992). We do have live access through the excellent ParliamentLive, which has coverage of all UK Parliament proceedings taking place in public, but its on-demand archive only stretches back 12 months from the date of broadcast. Thereafter you have to contact the Parliamentary Recording Unit itself for access.

Where the US cable network has led, maybe one day the UK will be able to follow in providing comprehensive online access to this archive much as we now enjoy with Hansard. It's good to be able to read, but how much more compelling it is to be able to see and hear as well. It helps us all the more to judge, to recognise, and to understand.


WOW! I wonder what additional legislative intent could be constructed from facial expression etc? Not a new option for interpretation given previous availability but now more widely observable. When did this go live?

As far as I know it went live this week - the official announcement is today, I think. I like the idea of one day there being tools to analyse visual features to interpret meaning - 'intent detectors'. If we believe in lie detectors, then why not. Probably somone's working on it right now.

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