BookTV, the C-SPAN program devoted to covering nonfiction titles, made its official debut on September 12, 1998. What began as an outgrowth of the now-defunct C-SPAN program Booknotes has, in the past 15 years, featured roughly 9,000 authors in 40,000 hours of programming. Running on C-SPAN 2 for 48-hour blocks on weekends, when Congress doesn’t meet, as well as over holiday breaks and weekends, BookTV still follows the fundamental C-SPAN mission: let the cameras roll and don’t edit. “It’s authors in their own words,” said BookTV executive producer Peter Slen. “No editing. That is still our wheelhouse. That’s still our main product.”
Though the program’s bread and butter continues to be coverage of author events, BookTV has organically grown its brand over time, adding programming and keeping up with expanding technology. In addition to the interview-based AfterWords, BookTV added InDepth, a monthly interview and call-in program, in which an author features his or her body of work. And now nearly all of the archival content is available online.
It also devotes significant screen time to live coverage of events like the National Book Awards and festivals around the country. BookTV has streamed live footage at 26 book festivals coast to coast, from the Los Angeles Times Festival of the Book to the Miami Book Fair International. It is also on-site at BookExpo America each year in New York City.
BookTV features authors of serious nonfiction, though select novelists who have written extensively in a nonfiction capacity on social issues, like Toni Morrison, have also made appearances. Over the life of the program, audiences have tuned in to watch and hear nine Nobel laureates, 13 Nobel Peace Prize recipients, six first ladies and five presidents. “If you’ve written a book about economics and you have a background in that, or if you’ve served as Fed chair, chances are, we’re going to cover you,” said Slen, adding that the program also focuses on history, science, and public policy issues.
Though the BookTV team strives to keep current with publication schedules and put authors of recent releases on the air, it also bends with moving events. As the current situation in Syria was bubbling, for example, BookTV issued a block program, taking footage of several authors of books relevant to the subject who have different perspectives and compiling it in one package available on the program’s Web site. “We do want to cover a book when it comes to publication, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to ignore the news,” Slen explained.
Considering the breadth of authors featured over the course of the program’s 40,000 hours, Slen understandably had difficulty plucking a single favorite moment from BookTV’s history. When pressed, he did recall a 2009 interview with Christopher Buckley, in which the writer teared up while discussing his parents’ passing. “That was pretty moving,” said Slen. “Also, having Temple Grandin on, and having her turn it around and ask me questions was absolutely fascinating.”
In the end, Slen relishes the opportunity to meet with extraordinary people. He has spent hours with controversial figures like Michael Moore and Anne Coulter. “You get to know people beyond just what you read,” said Slen. “You get to dig a little bit. It’s exciting, and it’s satisfying.”