When Barack Obama accepts his party’s nomination on Thursday before a capacity audience of 70,000 at Invesco Field in Denver, an aerial camera will hover above the stadium turf, using a TV technique normally applied at football games.
The special camera angle -- and CNN’s decision to spend close to $100,000 on it -- shows the steps networks are willing to take to compete for viewers as the presidential campaigns move into the fall.
Even at a time of steep budget cuts in news divisions, thousands of journalists will be stationed in Denver starting Monday for the Democratic National Convention, first at the Pepsi Center and then at Invesco Field. After Obama’s address, they will decamp en masse to St. Paul for the nomination of John McCain at the Republican convention next week.
Obama’s address, complete with historical resonance (coming on the 45th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech) and fireworks after sunset, may prove to be the quintessential made-for-television memory during the two weeks of conventions.
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“They’re going to Invesco to get this ‘moment,”’ said David Bohrman, senior vice president and executive in charge of political coverage at CNN.
While news division executives will not speculate on the record, some are predicting that Obama’s address will be the most-watched convention speech in a generation. (Coverage of John Kerry’s acceptance speech in 2004 had 24.4 million viewers; coverage of George W. Bush’s convention speech that same year drew 27.5 million.)
Two thousand four was a watershed year for convention coverage, when the Fox News Channel attracted the highest ratings of any network, cable or broadcast, during the Republican convention. But NBC, ABC and CBS -- each of which skipped a day of the conventions and ran an hour of prime-time coverage on the other three days -- all lost viewers compared with 2000. That phenomenon led some anchors and executives to predict further retrenchment in coverage come 2008.
Instead, the opposite happened: the networks all plan to show the 10 p.m. hour of each convention for four consecutive nights. And new faces will anchor the coverage on each network, with Brian Williams on NBC, Charles Gibson on ABC and Katie Couric on CBS. The conventions still are, in the words of the anchor Shepard Smith on Fox on Thursday, “one ginormous infomercial,” but the ratings for the political primary season were unusually strong and the election seems to be must-see TV this year.
As it did in 2004, PBS will carry the convention from 8 to 11 each night. The cable networks will be more comprehensive, with Fox News, CNN and MSNBC promising 18-20 hours of live coverage a day. In addition, any number of Web sites, including the official ones of each party, will stream the conventions live online.
Even before the conventions, networks were scrambling for an advantage. Bohrman had high hopes for the aerial camera, or Skycam: operated by a company called Winnercomm and familiar to football and basketball fans, it is suspended on four wires, one at each corner of the stadium, and directed by a computer-controlled joystick.
“It flies,” he said.
The television network “pool” that coordinates coverage of the conventions considered installing Skycams inside the arenas in Denver and St. Paul but decided that would be too expensive, Bohrman said. He pitched the camera idea to the political parties for CNN’s sole use, but it stalled until July, when the Obama campaign announced the stadium speech and agreed to let the network operate the Skycam.
On Friday, the other networks learned of the camera and objected in a pool conference call. After “long discussions” with the Democratic officials who manage the convention TV coverage, CNN said in an e-mail message to the other networks that it would share the camera if they shared the cost.
On Saturday, the other networks agreed.
Leaning far back in his chair in a conference room littered with power cords and Ethernet wires at CNN’s offices in the Time Warner Center in Manhattan on Friday, Bohrman said that conventions and elections were opportunities to try new technologies to enhance coverage. Four years ago, for example, CNN and other networks stationed their anchors on platforms on the floor of the conventions, thanks to advancements in microphone and earpiece technology.
This year, CNN will be back on the floor (with the largest platform of any network, a fact that some competitors called unfair). Couric of CBS News will also be anchoring from the floor. (CBS decided not to construct an elaborate soundproof skybox this year for cost reasons, said two network sources who requested anonymity because the network does not permit them to discuss financial decisions.) MSNBC will not be in the hall at all: The co-anchors, Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, will be at outdoor sets outside Union Station in Denver and at Rice Park in St. Paul.
In a sign of the increasing importance of the Internet in news consumption, all the networks are devoting more resources to video streaming. Couric will host a Webcast on CBSNews.com when her one-hour TV broadcast ends at 11 p.m. Eastern time. “It’s an opportunity to reach and showcase our work to a different audience,” said Rick Kaplan, the executive producer of the “CBS Evening News.”
Coming so soon after the end of the Summer Olympics, the conventions may be especially tiring for NBC. After two weeks in Beijing, Williams, the “NBC Nightly News” anchor, flew back to New York on Wednesday, only to repack his bags and fly to Denver late Friday. Williams’ colleague Ann Curry, who will be a podium correspondent at the conventions, may have had the most punishing travel plans: She hosted the “Today” show in Beijing on Friday and arrived in Denver on Saturday.
For all the networks, the two-mile move from the Pepsi Center, the initial site of the Democratic convention, to Invesco Field, where Obama will speak Thursday, may be more grueling than the subsequent move to St. Paul.
At 9 p.m. Mountain time on Wednesday, the broadcasters will wrap for the night, and a logistical feat will begin. Much of the broadcasting equipment will be moved from one location to the other — “cameras, monitors, boxes, people,” Bohrman said, “in secure convoys all night long” — in time for the network’s morning shows, which will begin at 5 a.m. the next day. The broadcasters will be set up on tented platforms in one of the end zones.
“I’ve never seen a moment like that in TV,” he said, calling it an “absolute logistical nightmare.”
Thursday’s stadium speech will mean additional costs for the networks, but given the historical nature of the event, producers are not grumbling too loudly. The move will be somewhat easier for CNN because it has a satellite-linked bus called the Election Express that can drive from one place to the other. It also helps that Bohrman will produce CNN’s coverage from New York rather than Denver or St. Paul.
Even if the Skycam no longer belongs exclusively to CNN, Bohrman, who has produced convention coverage since 1980, has another trick up his sleeve: a so-called pole cam, which will pan and zoom across the crowd at all three convention sites. He believes that the images will replicate some of the impact of the last time a presidential candidate delivered an acceptance speech in a separate site: In 1960, John F. Kennedy spoke at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles after the convention was held in the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.
“That image of him, giving his acceptance speech in front of that crowd, has lingered for all these years because it was unique,” Bohrman said.