Next Monday at 6:30 in the evening, Iowans will gather at Floyd and Julie Zeisman's house in Alden, a steak house in Baxter, Des Moines' Messiah Lutheran Church and a couple thousand other meeting places to select their Democratic presidential nominee. The venues are scattered throughout the state, but they are all located at the intersection of politics and television.
Every four years, the Iowa Caucuses kick off the primary season that culminates in the selection of the parties' presidential candidates in the summer. Every four years, Iowa TV newsrooms jump to the front row of the political parade.
"We know that this is a big story and the national spotlight is on Iowa," says Dave Busiek, news director at KCCI(TV) Des Moines and past chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.
"Without question, it is the biggest ongoing news story of the year for us," says Cal Woods, news director at Fox's KDSM-TV Des Moines. "We've been covering it on an almost daily basis since folks first started coming to town a year ago. It's a challenge, but one we readily accept."
The caucus-night challenge for local broadcasters will be to spread finite staffs and resources across numerous locations. Even so, the news directors in the state are showing a Midwestern independent streak, planning to handle their coverage without hiring additional staff, although most are getting some help, from either their networks or sibling stations.
The stations haven't yet picked individual caucus sites to cover and may not do so until the eleventh hour or until they know where the major candidates will be. Most will also have crews at the candidates' headquarters and the tabulation center that the Democrats have set up at the convention center in Des Moines.
Some stations will also be preempting their prime time schedules to make room for expanded coverage or at least breaking news.
At KCCI, Busiek will preempt a block of prime time, including big draws Everybody Loves Raymond
to air a two-hour block of coverage leading into his 10 p.m. newscast. (Last year's caucuses started at 7 p.m., but, in recognition of the importance of local media coverage, the Democrats have moved the time up a half-hour in part to make sure broadcasters have the results in time for their late news.)
Mark Ginther, news director for New York Times-owned WHO-TV Des Moines, an NBC affiliate, will preempt as needed, breaking into prime time when there is a winner. "If there's a speech right away, we'll cover that, too."
Ginther considered preempting a block of prime but decided the station didn't want to "analyze the analysis of a race that has been going on since May. I think that, by the time the caucus occurs, there will have been three debates within two weeks. I think what people will want to know is who won."
Busiek says KCCI will be able to handle the coverage without hiring any part-timers. That's in part because staffers in Hearst-Argyle's Washington bureau will make the trip to Des Moines to produce caucus coverage to feed to the station group. Those additional five bodies will be "a great source of help for us as well," he says.
KDSM-TV will have reporters with former Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Dick Gephardt and Sen. John Kerry, and, possibly, Sen. John Edwards, Woods says. Station owner Sinclair is sending a satellite truck and videographers, so he expects that, in addition to filing for his station, either his station or the Sinclair station in Cedar Rapids will be supplying "live or taped" pieces for Sinclair's centralcast.
Woods plans to call in some part-timers and has a college student/weekend shooter whom he will press into service for the big night.
KDSM-TV is a Fox affiliate but has no plans to work with Fox News Channel. "I ran into somebody from Fox at a debate and didn't even know they were here," Woods says. "They have not asked anything of us."
The story is different at WHO-TV. "We're going to work closely with NBC," says Ginther. "We've made preliminary arrangements to get some of their political folks, primarily Tim Russert and possibly Tom Brokaw, as part of our late local news." The station has also recruited David Yepsen, a columnist for the Des Moines Register, to provide analysis.
"We'll add a couple of extra people, but it's more of a scheduling issue," says Ginther. "People who were off that day will be working that day. An 'all-hands-on-deck' mentality."
Ginther says his station will not be getting help from the New York Times, even though it has the same corporate parent. "If I go to Starbucks and slap down a dollar, I can get a copy. The broadcast and print divisions are two separate entities."
On the day of the election, he says, the station will make an offer of five minutes of free time to all seven of the candidates within his noon news; Wesley Clark and Joe Lieberman are not participating in the caucus.
WOI-TV Des Moines, an ABC affiliate, will not be bringing in extra help, although, with two other Citadel stations in the state, News Director Scott Frederick has a built-in support system. "We share things with our stations in Sioux City and Moline, including any one-on-ones with the candidates."
Frederick's caucus-night plans are still being worked out, although he will likely do cut-ins in prime time. He will have his main anchor on the floor of the convention center, with reporters at caucus sites and at the headquarters of the front-runners. He is also hoping to get some national faces from ABC News on the newscast, either George Stephanopoulos or Peter Jennings. "We've been told we will get them."
KWQC-TV Davenport, a three-hour drive from the major head-counting in Des Moines, is sending a crew of two but does not plan to break into regular programming, according to News Director Doug Retherford. "We'll do the best we can and cover it as a news event in our newscast," he says, including covering some of the local caucuses Logistics, rather than content, dictate that treatment given the distance to Des Moines, he adds.
The station will be getting some help in that department from affiliate-feed NBC News Channel. KWQC-TV doesn't have a satellite truck, so it will book windows and get other logistical help, including space and access to equipment. While moving the starting time may give his station a little more content for the wrap-up, Retherford still thinks it will be "a long night."
One Iowa station that will have a long night is CBS affiliate KMEG(TV) Sioux City. A week ago, the station cut seven of 16 news staffers, citing a restructuring that included dropping weekend newscasts altogether. Gone are two anchors, the chief meteorologist, sports director, 6 and 10 p.m. producers, and a full-time and part-time photographer. The last three or four ratings books have been flat, and a source says the station has been losing money. "We had planned to hit one or two caucuses," says a self-proclaimed survivor, who gives new meaning to the phrase beat reporter. "I don't know what we'll do now." Even at full strength, "usually by 6 p.m. we were beat."
The caucus coverage and prime time preemptions cut into the bottom line. But does it make for must-see TV? "It's hard to tell," says Ginther.
"We're a diary market, and viewers don't have diaries in January. You do it because it's big news going on in your community."
One way Frederick at WOI-TV measures success is by the balance of his coverage. He says the station focused its caucus run-up coverage on policy statements rather than candidate endorsements by various groups. In part that's because he wants to avoid being accused of playing favorites. "We keep a running list of what we do so that candidates can't come back later and say we have been focusing more on one than another."