When the Democrats hit Denver on Aug. 25, whatever history happens on the podium will vastly overshadow a technological event happening on TV sets. Nonetheless, this will be the first political convention to be broadcast in high-definition.
Cutting a historical path is never easy, as presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama learned. But news organizations have been gathering experience. President George W. Bush's second inauguration in 2005 was captured in HD, and the State of the Union address has been offered in HD for several years now. Still, the conventions are the biggest remote political event any of the networks has ever covered in high-def.
Both Denver's Pepsi Center and the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., will be loaded with HD cameras, encoders, transmitters and digital audio consoles, but the big challenge is moving crews and equipment from Denver's Democratic convention, which ends on Thursday, Aug. 28, to St. Paul, where the Republicans meet beginning on Monday, Sept. 1.
Each organization is handling those logistics differently. CBS—which will cover the conventions for its network news programs and for its Websites—must pack up its equipment Thursday night, drive it to St. Paul, set it up and be ready to go for CBS Sunday Morning, says Mel Olinsky, director of operations for CBS News.
“Even though the fiber will be in place in [St. Paul], it still takes time to set up your router equipment, encoders and so forth. It doesn't give you much room for error,” Olinsky says.
CBS is the newest kid on the block when it comes to HD. The CBS Evening News doesn't go hi-def until later this month, and the only HD event CBS has covered prior to this is last January's State of the Union address.
NBC, on the other hand, has to finish up the Beijing Olympics on Aug. 24, cover Denver from Aug. 25-28 and then hit St. Paul from Sept. 1-4. To do all of that, NBC will use separate teams and separate equipment, says Phil Alongi, NBC and MSNBC's executive producer of special events and political coverage.
NBC will be covering the conventions for NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo and NBC News Channel, which provides news coverage to NBC affiliates. And once NBC gets to St. Paul, it's in charge of managing the HD pool coverage, for which NBC has hired Hudson, N.H.-based Game Creek Video.
“Our first large-scale HD news event was President Bush's 2005 inauguration,” says Pat Sullivan, president of Game Creek Video. “I think this will be a fairly similar process, and I suspect it will be fairly painless.”
To most efficiently use its talent, NBC has developed technology so that Brian Williams, David Gregory or Andrea Mitchell can “swing” from NBC to MSNBC to CNBC with the flip of a switch, Alongi says.
“We first developed 'swinging' at the start of the Iraq war when we were sending embeds into the war zone,” Alongi explains. “We wanted to make things as simple as possible for them. So we developed one control room in New York that we call the mother ship to make certain that any of our field reporters can get on any of the NBC networks without any trouble.”
NBC, CBS and CNN all plan to direct and produce most of their convention coverage from master control rooms in New York, while Fox will handle much of that on-site. Letting New York do the job tends to be less expensive than using a truck on-site.
“I've been a producer for a long time, and I've learned that sometimes you need to keep it simple and make some compromises,” Alongi says. “What I gave up this time was switching on-site. Instead, I said let's get everything back to New York so NBC's outlets can all best be served.”
To get the signals back to New York, each network has to make sure it has many truck-based HD feeds—each with its own HD encoder—available at all times.
CNN, which went to full HD a year ago, will have both satellite trucks and the CNN Election Express, a 37-foot mobile newsroom, at both conventions, giving the cable news network plenty of HD paths back to New York. There, David Bohrman, CNN's senior VP and Washington bureau chief, will produce the network's convention coverage.
“We have really superb control room facilities in New York, and that gives us more powerful production capabilities,” Bohrman says.
In the field, “every CNN photojournalist travels with an Apple Power Book. Some of our photojournalists are spectacular editors, and they end up editing field pieces right there,” Bohrman says.
As in 2004, CNN will anchor its coverage from the floor, surrounded by delegates, while CBS, NBC and Fox will have anchor booths in sky boxes as well as plenty of floor coverage. CNN's roaming production teams will cover the floor with high-def cameras—which brand is still being decided—rigged with COFDM wireless transmitters. Correspondents will use highly sensitive microphones and earpieces to conduct interviews with delegates, luminaries and speakers.
“With the new mikes and headsets, we can hear, speak and work just fine,” Bohrman says.
Beyond their original coverage, the networks also are setting up pool coverage at both conventions. Denver's pool will be managed by Fox. The network has hired Little Rock, Ark.-based Alliance Productions, working in conjunction with Pennsylvania company New Century Productions and Lake Bluff, Ill.-based Corplex Mobile Television, says Warren Vandaveer, senior VP of operations and engineering for the Fox News Channel.
Both pools will provide feeds in 1080i, 720p and standard-definition. Initial feeds will be captured in 1080i—the format of choice for NBC, CBS and CNN—and then transcoded to 720p for Fox and ABC or downcoverted for stations and networks still broadcasting in SD. But whether in 1080i or 720p, history will be made.