Networks Are Hard-Wired for Convention Politics

Increased fiber bandwidth means higher-quality feeds from the confabs
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Although pundits are bemoaning a disconnect between the two major parties that has polarized the American political landscape, one of the biggest technical advances in the coverage of the upcoming Republican and Democratic conventions will mean better connectivity, with increased fiber and IP bandwidth that will improve the quality of the network feeds.

ABC, for example, will have triple the bandwidth it had in 2008 running between the conventions and its New York City control rooms, reports Brian Kennedy, executive director of newsgathering operations at ABC News.

During the Democratic National Convention Sept. 4-6 in Charlotte, N.C., the additional bandwidth will allow ABC News on most nights to bring back all of its camera feeds from the venues over fiber links to its control rooms in New York, Kennedy adds. "Bandwidth is now so key for these events that the IT teams are the first people on the scene," he notes.

That connectivity will help ABC's digital operation in New York produce the 4.5 hours per day of programming they plan to stream as part of a partnership with Yahoo, adds Joe Ruffolo, senior VP of ABC News Digital.

At CNN, fiber links to the conventions will enable the network to send feeds back to a new control room in Washington, D.C., that was specially built to handle big election events, says Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president at CNN.

Feist notes that the convention production will be particularly complex because the DNC will use three different venues in Charlotte, while the network will be operating from inside the venues and at a separate CNN Grill location close to the Charlotte confab.

"All the feeds will be home-runned back to the Washington control room, which was designed for this kind of big, complex event," Feist says. NBC will have more than 5 gigabytes of fiber from AT&T and will be sending back JPEG 2000 feeds, a very high-quality format that has low latency but is rarely used for news coverage because of bandwidth constraints.

"We will have 20 paths outbound from Tampa and 10 paths back," notes Marc Weinstock, director of technical operations for all of the NBCUniversal entities covering the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. from Aug. 27-30.

This year, the NBC booth will move up from the floor location of 2008 into a more traditional glass-enclosed studio that will be linked with four paths in each direction to MSNBC. "Instead of having them as stand-alone operations, we will be able to better share stories and interviews with guests," Weinstock says.

CBS, meanwhile, "will be transmitting almost exclusively in fiber optic," where the coverage will be produced in the network's New York control rooms, says Tim Gaughan, CBS News senior producer of special events.

Increased fiber connectivity will allow CBS to do everything in HD, as opposed to the mix of HD and SD they offered in 2008, which will improve the quality of their video and permit them to feed much more content to digital platforms, Gaughan adds.

On the station side, this improved connectivity will help the networks to better service their affi liates and will play a telling role at a number of station groups that are sending major contingents.

Hearst, for example, will send more than 30 employees from at least seven stations. It will be using satellite capacity, bandwidth from ABC and an innovative system that sends video via voiceover IP (VoIP) lines to all of its stations. "We can run up to eight different live shots through [the VoIP system] with a click of the mouse on each of the lines," notes Wendy Wilk, Hearst Television D.C. bureau chief.

Cable operators and their local news channels will also be playing an expanded role. Bright House Networks will be the official telecommunications provider of fiber and Internet services for the RNC and Time Warner Cable is playing a similar role at the DNC.

The local cable channels owned by the two MSOs are also pooling their convention coverage, which will produce the biggest local cable presence ever seen at the conventions. "Between the two companies, we will have about 150 people being credentialed at the RNC," notes Elliott Wiser, VP of local programming for Bright House Networks. "It is a huge effort. We have a great skybox location and will be delivering materials to all the Time Warner Cable and Bright House channels."

Fox News Channel will also have extensive bandwidth at its disposal during the conventions. Transmission of pool material and the coverage from its own cameras will be sent over more than twenty lines via satellite and fiber from the Fox News compound at the conventions to their New York facilities.

The cable news net will also have over 20 fiber transmission lines within the city limits of Tampa and Charlotte to move material from inside and outside the convention perimeters.

All camera feeds for Fox shows originating from their skybox in the Tampa Times Forum at the RNC Convention and the Time Warner Arena at the DNC Convention will be sub-switched in their mobile unit located near the venues and sent back to New York or D.C. for additional graphics.

For their "America's Election HQ" special convention coverage, they will be using two control rooms: the main control room in their mobile unit at the venue, and a supplemental control room at their New York facilities.

The Associated Press (AP) will also have an extensive presence at the conventions. David Ake, assistant Washington D.C. bureau chief, photography, notes that they will have over 30 people at the convention supplying material to broadcast stations and other clients above and beyond coverage that is being done in Washington. Also, AP reporters are travelling with the candidates.

A key part of AP's efforts will come with their mobile and social media work. "The conventions supply a scripted political narrative and our job is to unpack those narratives," says AP editor-at-large Ted Anthony. "That will take many forms on a lot of different platforms-photo galleries, live blogging on the stage craft and how it is scripted, etc. Digital platforms can help us be very analytical about what is going on and hold the people who are building these political narratives accountable."

AP's Global Media Services operation, which has room for about 120 people, will also play a major role in helping international broadcasters get material back to their homelands. "If you are a correspondent from France, we can find you a place to do stand-ups, get you a crew and get you up on the [satellite] so you don't have to bring your own satellite trucks, crews or even cameras," Ake explains.

At the RNC, GMS operation will tap fiber from the convention site heading back to AP's Washington master control room for video distribution. At the DNC, they will use the Liberty Uplink from Time Warner Arena during the first two days of the convention and then use fiber from the Bank of America Stadium on the last night to carry feeds back to their D.C. master control.

On the station side, Brian Bracco, VP of news at Hearst Television, says that the streamlined workflows they created as part of their next generation newsgathering project will allow them to produce more material for multiple platforms and more easily share that material between stations. "We will be providing a continuous stream of information from morning to night," he says.

Reporters from the Hearst stations that are attending the convention will be heavily focused on their local delegations. "A lot of times they try to get a room in the same area where their congressional delegation is located so they can more easily follow them and have access to their meetings," Bracco says. "Then if they get a one-on-one with someone that is important, we can easily share it with the rest of the group."

Behind the scenes, the Internet Broadcasting (IB), which works with a number of major broadcast station groups on their web and digital efforts, will also be playing an important role in supplying material to stations, even though IB won't be sending people to the confabs themselves.

IB president and CEO Elmer Baldwin notes that they have a team that gathers news for their clients' websites and that they are producing some special features and sections for the conventions.

IB is also playing a vital role by supplying tools that will allow reporters from stations that use their service to very quickly publish material to multiple platforms. "I think you will have more digital content coming out of the conventions, and this entire election cycle, than ever before," Baldwin notes.

However, stations have not staffed up to handle the increased volume-which makes all these efficiencies that much more important. "Four years ago, the stations went through a tough period that forced them to squeeze out a lot of costs," Baldwin says. "A lot of those budgets haven't come back so they have to be more efficient and find ways to do more with less, which is why we've put more automation into the process."

E-mail comments to gpwin@oregoncoast.com and follow him on Twitter: @GeorgeWinslow

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