08.15.2008 12:00 AM
CNN Election Express Helps Swing at Convention Curveballs

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CNN’s Election Express functions as a mobile studio and communications center.
CNN will deploy its full tier of tools—its Election Express bus, its “Magic Wall” and more—at the upcoming political conventions as news networks begin a sprint that will barely let up until the inauguration of a new president Jan. 20.

The Election Express, which functions as a mobile studio and communications center, puts CNN at an advantage over its competitors, said CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman—especially given the “curveball” of locating Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at Denver’s Invesco Field at Mile High, a mile-and-a-half from the main activities at Pepsi Center.

At the Pepsi Center, the party and the networks will have had a month or more to get everything together—but that’s not the case for the Democrats’ biggest night, in the big stadium, where the Denver Broncos will play football on the weekends both before and after.

“The moment the Democrats get the field, which is Saturday [Aug. 24] sometime, they’re going to totally transform it,” and the networks will build platforms for their anchors,” Bohrman said. “When the Wednesday [Aug. 27] session is over, we’ll drive the bus over, we’ll hook up the cables, and we’ll be on the air by ‘American Morning’ time, without really having to do as much as everybody else.”

The bus offers four HD satellite paths and access to the entire CNN communications system, the audio, IFB and monitors, plus workspace. Most other news outlets don’t have all that in one package.

“Everybody wants the last night to be able to be reflective of the size of the stadium, so the [press] pool has really had to scramble and figure out how to deploy its resources, without enormously increasing the cost, because that’s something we’re all sharing,” Bohrman said.

Bohrman will do the actual producing of both parties’ conventions from New York, building on its experience in 2004, when he produced the Democrats’ confab from a control room in Atlanta. That will gives him close access to all of CNN’s tools, graphics, analysts and the big “Magic Wall” touchscreen that John King manipulated through the primaries.

It all adds up to a big change from having giant control vehicles in the parking lot of the arena, with limited access to the resources back at headquarters. With the two conventions nearly back-to-back this year, producing both from New York saves time, money and headaches, and means fewer staff have to actually go to Denver and St. Paul.

Another lesson from 2004 applied in 2008: Anchors are no longer in the arena skyboxes and are instead out on the floor, to create a stronger sense of actually being at the sometimes-chaotic event, instead of above it. CNN had anchors on the floor on 2004 at the Democratic convention in Boston but not the Republican convention in New York.

The biggest challenge of that is the audio, because the floor of a political convention is about as loud a place as there is, Bohrman said. “The way we set up audio four years ago and the way were doing it this time is radically different, because were able to bring a much smaller infrastructure at the convention,” he said.

New earpieces, to be placed in both ears, are ready for action in Denver and St. Paul.

CNN’s IFB (intercom) will go through New York, so personnel at the conventions will actually have their voices travel across the country and back to reach other people in the same building. “The approach to audio and how IFB works had to be talked out about 100 times,” Bohrman said.

CNN, which began programming in HD last fall, will deploy a new batch of Sony HD cameras—mostly smaller than in the past—including EXs based on the bus, as well as two wireless HDcams to roam the floors. Some specialty cams now seeing use in the Olympics will also grace convention coverage, although CNN isn’t talking more specifically yet about those new tools.

As many as eight video paths (and 16 audio paths) will be involved, but the audio won’t necessarily be linked with its video, and New York will have to match it all back up.

“We’ve got this matrix of video and audio feeds and we have to be really careful that we understand where everything is,” Bohrman said. “Audio is really the most complicated part of this. Plus everyone will be plugged in to CNN RTS [digital intercom] system. ... The communications side of audio is almost as complicated as the on-air side of audio.”

Beyond its flagship channel, CNN will also stream live to the Web on CNN.com and CNNPolitics.com. It will upgrade the “CNN Diner” operation from 2004 with new “CNN Grills” at restaurants (Brooklyn’s in Denver and the Eagle Street Grill in St. Paul) to bring delegates and other newsmakers into the broadcasts.

As for the Election Express vehicle itself, it had a brief vacation in Florida after the primaries wrapped up, for some cleaning, maintenance and rewiring.


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