A local insider's view of televising July's political confab
Covering a national political convention in your own backyard is a major project for any local television operation, but it's not as hard as you might think. The major requirements include a commitment to begin developing your coverage plan several months before the event, ongoing coordination between all departments whose services are required, and a budget with enough resilience to take a few unexpected hard hits.
Planning for the Democratic National Convention (DNC) at WCVB began with the creation of a core working group of department heads and the selection of a single person to coordinate the entire process. A preliminary coverage plan was established, possible live locations were identified and the process of meeting and building relationships with DNC and city officials began.
We quickly came to grips with the fact that at this event, the country's first post-9/11 convention, planning for what we hoped wouldn't happen was also going to require a significant commitment of resources and personnel.
The possibility of large-scale disruptions by demonstrators, or even a terrorist attack-significant factors in the plans being made by area police and the Secret Service-meant that we couldn't tie up all our live resources at venues where we were already planning coverage. We also began to research and budget for personal protective equipment for our field crews and to formulate plans for tracking staffers in the field, emergency communications and transportation/evacuation.
As our countdown to the beginning of the convention continued, we were forced to acknowledge that the 2 GHz microwave band used for daily ENG coverage by seven Boston stations could not support our plans for three remote anchor locations, three additional pre-positioned remotes, a portable rover team and the driving live shots from our Roadrunner 4x4, let alone whatever other news we needed to cover. We reduced our microwave requirements by putting the two most important locations on fiber and a third on satellite. With our helicopter effectively grounded due to air traffic restrictions imposed by the Secret Service, ENG traffic would be quite manageable on a powerup/power-down basis.
POINT OF CONTACT
Individual crew chiefs were assigned to our three primary remotes-Fleet Center where the convention was held, Faneuil Hall in nearby Quincy Market and Boston's Museum of Science across the Charles River-and given full responsibility for not only the technical setup at each venue, but also for liaison with building/site/security personnel as well as operational supervision of staff during the convention. Having a crew chief as the single point of contact made it much easier to overcome the inevitable logistical roadblocks and obstacles.
Our setup at the Fleet Center was the most complex, requiring a router to service recording and transmission from our trailer workspace outside the Fleet, a pair of editing systems plus additional decks to take in feeds, cable runs for DNC pool feeds and our unilateral floor position, as well as off-air cable and high-speed Internet to access the newsroom computer. The leased fiber line to the studio was backed up by another line we maintain year-round to cover sports events.
One of our biggest obstacles was the length of the proposed cable run from the convention floor to our trailer. Since all cabling within the complex must be purchased new, installed by an outside vendor and abandoned at the end of the event, long runs of copper cable attenuated both the signal and the budget.
After much negotiating we were able to reduce the run by several hundred feet. Opting for multimode fiber and using our own terminal equipment reduced costs even further.
Operating within the Fleet Center meant all RF equipment (wireless mics, IFB transmitters and portable radios) had to be frequency-coordinated, - tested and -certified. During a full fax test a few days before the convention, we discovered one of the four wireless mic frequencies allocated for our use was unusable, apparently due to interference that hadn't been anticipated by the preliminary computer modeling.
Working inside the convention hall meant enduring a number of unique challenges. The thorough security screening each time anyone entered included RF equipment; transmitters without stickers confirming certification were not allowed beyond the security perimeter. Establishing a small cache of essential repair tools and spares inside the hall during construction, before the building was locked-down and swept, meant we didn't have to carry them on our person. On the final nights of the convention, when overcrowding of the hall resulted in the fire marshal closing the entry doors, journalists, technicians and even delegates who had stepped into the corridor for a comfort break or to enjoy a dinner of concession-stand burgers and pizza got locked out of the hall, missing the acceptance speeches and even some live shots.
Communication was another problem. The noise level inside the hall could at times be loud enough to make using conventional handset phones and radios all but impossible. Anticipating that cellphone circuits would be busy at best and overloaded in the event of an emergency, all producers and technical personnel were issued walkie-talkies with closed-earpiece headsets. A portable repeater was set up on a nearby building to ensure full coverage with no dead spots.
Although the fixed locations generally got more airtime, WCVB's two mobile live crews provided the most unique perspectives. A rover team equipped with a low-power digital transmitter worked the public and protest areas outside the security perimeter at the Fleet Center and provided live coverage of the largest demonstration on the convention's final day. Our Roadrunner, equipped with three genlocked cameras, provided viewers with a unique look at the nearly empty roads near the convention hall and delegate hotels.
Management frequently reminded those of us assigned to the streets around the Fleet Center that our safety and security were more important than the story. Fortunately the relatively small number of demonstrators who came to Boston never got out of hand and the threat of terrorism remained just that. But-just like the thousands of federal, state and regional public safety personnel who were standing by-we were ready, just in case.
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