Sanjay Talwani /
10.17.2007 12:00 AM
CNN Rolls Out Election Express

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In newsroom mode, CNN Election Express can accommodate up to 20 people.
WASHINGTON
The new CNN Election Express hit the road last month, bringing the news network’s newest, most powerful HD tool to the candidates.

It’s a satellite truck capable of four live simultaneous HD feeds to CNN facilities around the country. It’s a studio with soft, black sofas for candidate interviews. And it’s a portable, self-sufficient news bureau with enough desk space, benches, power and broadband for 20 people, according to David Bohrman, CNN senior vice president and Washington Bureau chief.

Toward the back of the bus, a producer can edit on the road on Final Cut Pro, with 13 TB of server space. The bus can handle all major SD and HD inputs—P2, HDV, Canon formats and Sony XDCAM—so it can link up with any local crew it encounters and with CNN’s own big-name reporters who fly in for a story.

New Bus Powers CNN-YouTube Debates
At the CNN-YouTube debate at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., July 23, producers used the new Election Express bus (alongside an HD sports production truck) for chores from choosing and compositing the YouTube debate questions, to serving them up live, to transmitting the whole thing over satellite.

In the days just before the debate, with the bus in its newsroom mode, producers culled through about 3,000 YouTube submissions (shown on computers or the bus monitors), voting the clips in or out of a finalist “bucket of 100,” said David Bohrman, CNN executive vice president and Washington Bureau chief.


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CNN aimed to simulate the YouTube experience, but not to exactly duplicate the YouTube Web pages, with their comment sections and other material.

So after the team narrowed the field to about 75 questions for debate day (about 40 were actually used), Election Express Producer Joshua Rubin pulled an all-nighter compositing fresh video clips.

He pulled the raw video files from YouTube and used Final Cut Pro to composite new clips, with an animated background of the floating words “CNN You-Tube Debate” and the citizen’s name, city and state. Rubin also added a slide-bar timeline like those on many video players but not part of the native YouTube clip.

CNN took submissions until 3 a.m. local time the night before the debate, so the crew arrived in the morning to find 500 new submissions—four of which actually made the cut. (For the next CNN-YouTube debate, among Republicans Nov. 28 in St. Petersburg, Fla., the network plans to set the submission deadline a day or so earlier.).

Producers saved the clips on the server on the bus. Then live, on the sports production truck, they used Fork Playout software (from Netherlands-based Building4Media and customized by CNN) to bring the clips up when needed and onto the 25-foot screen inside the McAlister Field House, along with small flat-panel monitors on the candidates’ podiums.

A producer in the truck, behind Bohrman, operated a laptop connected through two jacks in the bus’ side panel to the Fork LAN, which includes the bus server.

“We needed to be incredibly flexible in real time,” said Bohrman. “When I said, here’s what the next clip is going to be, and Anderson [Cooper] said, ‘Our next clip is for you, Senator Clinton,’ our producer behind me hit play on her laptop. It triggered the server to play the clip out of one of the two server ports.”

Bohrman then told the director which of the two sources to send to the arena (and to use as the audio source).

“So the bus itself was playback source for all the high-def clips because it’s the only thing we have that can actually play back high-definition clips in this sort of random access, change-your-mind, change-your-playlist way, with thumbnails—the way that we operate,” he said. “It would have been vary hard to do that any other way.”

The final mix from the sports truck then went back over cable to the bus for live transmission over satellite.

“Now we know what we’re doing for the next debate,” said Bohrman.

Sanjay Talwani
It also has a makeup station, microwave oven, toilet and shower.

TRANSFORMER

Frontline Communications was the systems integrator and overall project manager for the vehicle. The two-year effort also included another Clearwater, Fla., company, Parliament Coach, a specialist in high-end vehicles.

“We had to design, front to back, top to bottom, every inch,” said Bohrman. “In custom buses, nothing’s off-the-shelf.”

In studio mode—stationary and in Expando mode, or rolling down the highway—LitePanels LEDs can affix to any of three tracks along the ceiling. They fit the bus’ need for lightweight, lower-power, low-heat accessories.

“It’s incredibly flexible and incredibly simple,” said Bohrman.

To transform to newsroom mode, extra benches and desk parts, obtained from marine equipment suppliers, screw into the smooth floor. Sony monitors can show various video sources including one of the four DirecTV receivers. Around the bus, stylishly concealed, are RJ45 connections, different types of Internet connections and powerstrips.

EXTRA CONNECTIVITY

The bus uses a satellite pool from iDirect Technology, a Herndon, Va.-based developer of satellite broadband systems. The system provides reliable bandwidth for the four video feeds as well as ordinary Internet, telephones and the intercom system.

With their Atlanta area codes, the onboard phones behave just like landlines, said Bohrman.

And the 64x64 RTS Cronus intercom system can connect over iDirect to Atlanta or anywhere else, according to Frontline Project Manager Jeff Steele.

Massive patch panels are on both port and starboard (so the bus can still operate with one side blocked). Two 25 kW diesel generators rumble in the stern—one for the lighting and normal front-end bus operations and one for the racks and racks of TV-related systems in the rear. And if one fails, the other can take over.

Frontline usually works with aluminum chassis, but this one is made of tubular steel, said Steele of Frontline. Parliament “coved out” the ceiling, giving 10 inches of space for the satellite dish to hide, so the bus can meet the 13-foot-6 federal height limit, said Steele.

The bus saw initial action at the CNN-YouTube debate among Democratic presidential candidates in July, in conjunction with a regular sports production truck. (See story this page.)

Its first rollout on its own came during a Sept. 26 Republican debate in New Hampshire.

Bohrman said the companies shared his philosophy of “sure power, applied to everything.”

That means complete self-sufficiency, plus the ability to tap into outside connectivity and power resources; conversely, the bus can farm its own power out to local crews on the ground. In other words, it can tap into local T3 lines in a high-tech setting, or use iDirect in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.

NO HANK WILLIAMS SONG

The bus is a major improvement over the bus CNN used for the 2004 campaign.

That bus, formerly the tour bus of Hank Williams Jr., had no satellite system of its own, so it had to be accompanied by a satellite truck to provide any remote feed.

Instead, Election Express is the jewel of CNN’s fleet. No other CNN vehicle can supply more than one HD feed, said Bohrman. In a pinch, the bus can even send video files by ftp over its tracking Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) system while driving down the highway.

After the campaign, CNN will have the bus available for other news coverage from special events to disasters.

“This bus is by far the best HD platform we’ve got,” said Bohrman.


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