News Nets Brace for Inauguration Mayhem

For some in the TV business, Jan. 20, 2009, will be the day they’ve been working toward their entire careers.

“There has never been anything quite like this,” said CNN Senior Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief Dave Bohrman of the impending inauguration of Barack Obama. “The logistics are, to some extent, frightening.”

Mike Burke of Voice of America TV checks out the preparation of the inaugural site.

Just getting reporters and videographers to work may be a challenge, as major highways in Virginia are closed to unauthorized inbound traffic even miles away from the District. The region’s Metrorail system is expecting to break its all-time volume record by about noon.

NBC and others have booked hotel rooms in the city for some workers to ensure they can make it, according to Phil Alongi, NBC News executive producer of special events. Other staff will just have to start out early and hope for the best. Journalists are preparing for complete human gridlock and the inability to move anywhere, press pass or no press pass.

At previous inaugurals, crowds filled the National Mall only within several blocks of the U.S. Capitol, leaving most of that expanse relatively empty. But with possibly millions of people expected for the day (Washington authorities have backtracked from their initial estimate of some 4 million), the Mall could be packed with people all the way to the Washington Monument (near the Mall’s midpoint) or all the way to the Lincoln Memorial (at the Mall’s west end) or even beyond that.

And, there’s always the chance of snow, and certainly a likelihood of very cold conditions. With a worldwide TV audience possibly in the billions, the major news networks are taking no chances.

“I think we need to assume that all of these people that are being predicted to show up might actually show up,” Bohrman said.

CNN will put one atop a 55-foot crane near the Washington Monument. CBS will have one at the top of the monument.

“We have cams all over the place,” Bohrman said. “We have cams where we never anticipated.”

Networks are using mobile wireless HD cameras, sending signals to trucks along the Mall. CNN will use its Election Express bus, with four HD satellite paths available. Bohrman will produce the CNN programming from New York, where there’s a master control large enough to handle the onslaught of HD feeds. Counting all the pool feeds, Bohrman anticipates about 50 HD cameras in action, and he promised some technological surprises for the day.

As in past inaugurals, the major nets are dividing up the pool responsibilities. NBC will shoot at the Capitol, the site of the actual swearing-in. CBS oversees the parade route (although other nets will have also their own cameras on vehicles in the parade, feeding multiple receive sites.) ABC handles the other end of the activity, at Lafayette Park (near the White House), where the new president reviews the parade.

CNN has the job of coordinating the pool feeds. And Fox News Channel will be with President Bush to the end, covering his departure from Andrews Air Force Base, as well as Obama’s train trip from Philadelphia to Washington.

It’s roughly the same setup that the nets used during the 2004 funeral of Ronald Reagan, and will be employed for any future presidential funerals, except that those conclude at the National Cathedral, not the White House.

The nets have staked out locations for their anchors. CNN will be in the Newseum—with its striking view of the Capitol Dome—conveniently located right on the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue.

The five fingers of NBC News—NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo and—will also have extensive use of remote cams, including four wireless COFDM HD cameras.

NBC will have its main stage in the center of the Mall, Alongi said, and MSNBC anchors will set up on a platform near 7th Avenue and Constitution, providing a view of the sea of people both East (to the Capitol) and West.

NBC’s Andrea Mitchell will ride with a camera on a flatbed truck preceding the president-elect’s vehicle.

The interest in the president-elect extends beyond the U.S. borders. Eurovision, representing scores of broadcasters in Europe, is carrying the event in HD for the first time, citing unprecedented interest from its members.