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The 2012 Elections may or may not produce those sweeping changes politicians love to promise, but there is little doubt that technology is already bringing far-reaching shifts to the way the campaigns are covered.
First and foremost, this will be the first presidential election where tablets, social media, apps and smart phones are firmly a part of the mainstream, with Nielsen predicting that half of all American adults are expected to have a smart phone by the end of the year, and Forrester projecting that U.S. tablet users will pass the 50 million mark in 2012.
“We feel 2012 will be the social networktablet elections,” notes Lou Ferrara, VP and managing editor for interactive and social media at the Associated Press.
That focus on social media has already been seen in some of the debates, most notably the CNN/Tea Party Republican Debate, which featured questions delivered from social media sites; that will only expand over the next year.
A slew of journalists are already posting comments to social media sites, NBC is partnering with Facebook for a Republican debate prior to the New Hampshire primary early next year, and all the major networks are looking to include analysis and social media activity in their coverage.
During the debate, the #cnnteaparty hashtag became the No. 1 trending topic globally and in the U.S., notes Sam Feist, Washington, D.C., bureau chief and senior vice president at CNN.
“It drove people to find the debate and watch it,” which boosted ratings, he adds. Some 3.6 million viewers watched the event, and there were about 455,000 live streams at CNN.com during the debate, which is a bigger number than some cable TV news shows draw on a regular basis.
While social media and mobile platforms are attracting much of the chatter for the 2012 coverage, other older, less obvious technology trends are likely to have a huge impact.
The major networks are entering into 2012 coverage with much better infrastructures and capabilities to dramatically expand their election coverage and to deliver more content to many more devices. They’ve made major upgrades in the last decade to digitize their operations, move to file-based workflows and upgrade to their HD production infrastructures.
“The backend isn’t as sexy to talk about, and most people aren’t interested in how it works, but it’s the foundation for the improvements and better coverage we’re offering,” notes Vivian Schiller, chief digital officer at NBC News.
One example of the improved coverage made possible by the transformation of network news operations is the growing use of single-person crews equipped with lightweight cameras, laptop editing systems and backpacks or other systems to send back live video, text blogs and tweets from the field.
NBC, for example, has embedded eight journalists with candidates and in early primary states and equipped them with light Sony HVR-Z5U cameras, laptops with editing software and LiveU backpacks, says Jeffrey Coneys, director of NCT/satellite operations for NBCUniversal.
“It allows us to get more and more content out of places where we wouldn’t have been able to send a satellite crew and truck to cover,” he explains.
NBC has been using the LiveU backpacks to send back video over cellular networks since 2009, but 2012 will represent by far the network’s biggest use of the technology.
“To me, the fact that we have eight embeds is one of the most exciting things we’re doing,” Schiller adds. “It is a clear point of differentiation and gives us amazing resources for reporting and the distribution of content with them reporting on all the social media and our other platforms.”
CBS, meanwhile, has cut a deal with the National Journal to put three Journal reporters and three CBS journalists in the field equipped with the lightweight cameras, laptops and 4G air cards for sending video back from the field as they follow candidates and cover early primary states.
Besides the one-person crews, CBS News has also embarked on a major initiative to work more closely with CBS Radio and other divisions to expand their reporting.
“One of our biggest efforts is original reporting,” notes Tim Gaughan, CBS News director of digital newsgathering and senior producer of special events, who adds that their one-person crews have already allowed them to beef up their political reporting on The Early Show.
ABC did not provide an executive to be interviewed for this story.
CNN has also moved aggressively to ramp up its field coverage with smaller crews equipped with lighter, more mobile equipment that can send back video over cellular networks with LiveU backpacks, Feist adds.
An even more graphic example of how larger upgrades are transforming newsgathering and 2012 election coverage can be found at AP.
The news organization will start offering entertainment news in HD on Nov. 11, followed by sports in January 2012, and its main breaking news service will go HD by the following June, in time for the 2012 London Olympics in July and the U.S. presidential elections in November.
As part of that effort, AP is also upgrading equipment and its infrastructure to significantly expand its video output. AP photographers are now using Canon 5D cameras that shoot HD video, and the service is equipping many text reporters and others with lightweight Panasonic cameras, laptop editing systems and LiveU backpacks to send back video from the field.
Combined with their more traditional video crews, these one-person crews will allow AP to significantly expand its election coverage for on-air and digital platforms, notes Kevin Roach, VP and director of U.S. broadcast news at AP’s Broadcast News Center.
“This is a really extraordinary period of time,” Roach says, “with some amazing technology that is actually affordable, which is allowing us and others to rapidly dive into the digital world and improve our coverage.”
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