For the iconic C-SPAN, its Ford Transit Connect local content vehicles (LCVs) are the wheels driving a media project that is mapping out the literary and historical riches of cities across the U.S.
Since launching in 2010, the six Ford Transit Connect LCVs have traveled to at least 24 cities, and the team has produced approximately 425 programs for the private, nonprofit cable television network.
So, how does C-SPAN manage six vans traveling across the country to produce and edit content on the spot?
In 2010, C-SPAN started the LCV project with one Transit Connect, according to Mark Farkas, a C-SPAN producer who leads the project.
"When the Gulf oil spill happened, we realized we needed to expand our quick response programming beyond Washington, D.C. — we needed to be able to shoot and edit (content) from the road," he said.
As the project grew, that one vehicle quickly grew to three, and the fleet traveled together city to city.
But, now with six Transit Connects under C-SPAN ownership, the fleet is separated into two teams — three vehicles each and one person per vehicle. One team sticks around the West Coast while the other roams on the East.
Every vehicle is equipped with video production and editing equipment for quick turnaround of the footage for each featured city.
The teams are typically in each city for about a week and then fly back to D.C. between gigs, leaving the vans behind. C-SPAN uses its local cable company station partners and local city governments not only to broadcast the segments on local channels, but also to help house the Transit Connects between filming. C-SPAN also gets help from local city governments throughout the filming process.
C-SPAN decided against issuing fuel cards to drivers, and instead, each person has an American Express corporate card and files expense reports as needed. C-SPAN uses AAA for roadside service and maintains the vehicles, which are all still under warranty, at Ford dealerships.
The equipment probably costs just as much as the vans themselves, so most of it is taken out between projects. But, leaving the vehicles sitting can still be risky since they often hang out for two to three weeks before moving on. At the beginning of the project, Farkas said C-SPAN tried out an expensive alarm system, though it ended up drawing too much power from the battery. And, installing solar panels on the tops of the vehicles didn't seem to help.
Now that the LCVs have returned to a standard alarm system, Farkas said they're trying to find another use for the panels, aside from just powering the air conditioning. According to Farkas, one obvious use won't work — powering up video equipment on the road.
"I'm sure if we got really creative, we could find another use for them," he noted, but in the meantime they don't take much maintenance and are hardly visible.
At this point, the equipment and risk management is the least of Farkas' worries. Per motor vehicle laws in Washington, D.C., the vehicles must return every year to the capital for annual inspections. Only once in a vehicle's lifetime does D.C. law allow a vehicle to receive an out-of-state inspection.
"That's our biggest challenge right now," Farkas said.
Surprisingly, the vehicles don't rack up too much mileage. Farkas said even C-SPAN's first-purchased vehicles, 2010-MY vans, only have 40,000 miles so far.
"They will last us for a while," he said.