When Democrats begin their national convention just over two weeks from now, it’ll be a test for the broadcast and cable networks: How to cover an event that will be like no other, where the celebratory atmosphere and masses of people instead will be a more sober, controlled environment that is heavily virtual.
Gone are the crowds, the sky booths, the giant balloon drops and perhaps even the chance of any unexpected moments of drama.
What is likely to unfold is coverage of remote speeches from around the country, with a heavy mix of analysis and commentary from anchors, pundits, historians and correspondents.
“We have never seen anything like this with the conventions,” Judy Woodruff of PBS NewsHour told reporters this past week. “It is not going to be a real convention. It is going to be a program or programs they produce.”
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Democrats are planning just two hours per night for each of the four nights of their event starting on August 17, with Joe Biden accepting the nomination in Milwaukee but in a smaller venue before far fewer people in person.
Speeches by former President Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama are expected, and there have been reports that John Kasich, the former Republican governor of Ohio, was tapped for a slot. Also being planned are some entertainment performances, along with remotes across the country in what the party has dubbed the “convention across America.” With video screens, remote connections and graphics, some have compared what is in the works to something resembling the NFL draft last spring.
Much less is known about the Republicans’ plans, after President Donald Trump abruptly canceled what was to be a more traditional large-scale Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, FL. Instead, he’s hinted that the GOP gathering, too, will be in the form of the “tele-rally,” while he has dangled the possibility of accepting the nomination from Washington, the original host city of Charlotte, NC, or some other state.
A lot, though, is still be determined, and it will put networks on the spot to discern what warrants coverage and what will merely play out like a party infomercial.
“I kind of compare it to breaking news,” said Cherie Grzech, VP Politics at Fox News’ Washington bureau. “Generally in a convention, you have a lot of specifics. You kind of know the layout of exactly what’s going to occur. And then you put together a plan based on that. In this situation, it’s ever-changing.”
What is clear is that the networks’ footprint in each of the host cities will be greatly scaled back — by anywhere from 50%-90% compared with four years ago.
A number of networks are planning to base their control rooms in New York or Washington, and are making plans to locate their anchor teams in the home cities. There will be more reliance on a network pool camera to capture the proceedings, wherever they are — a contrast to past conventions, when speeches were interspersed with reaction shots of the delegates.
Rashida Jones, SVP at NBC News and MSNBC, said that the past few months have given them the opportunity to prepare for covering events at a time of COVID-19.
“In a weird way we have had the opportunity to prepare and game out how we do big coverage,” noting the way the network covered civil unrest in the wake of the death of George Floyd, as well as issues related to the pandemic, she said.
“Whatever happens, we are prepared to pivot,” she said.
Jones said that “what people come to us for is not necessarily the pomp and circumstance for what is happening in the room. It is the analysis” of the moment itself.
“We will still have that level of reporting and talent. It will just be in a different city,” she said. “That doesn’t necessarily put you at a disadvantage by not being there.”
By the time Democrats announced plans to dramatically scale back their proceedings in Milwaukee, and Trump canceled plans for the Jacksonville portion of the RNC, network executives were well on their way to rethinking the way they cover the events and the size of their footprint in each city.
Compared to several hundred being sent to convention cities in the past, ABC News will be sending a couple dozen at the most, said Marc Burstein, senior executive producer of special events.
“The two most important things are that we cover the story, and that we put our people’s safety on top of everything,” he said.
“It’s not going to have the spectacle and the energy of the typical convention. I think it is going to be a sobering event, but we are in a sobering time,” he said. “It is a time when we are dealing with the virus and the severe economic downturn and the protests for racial justice, and we are treating it in the appropriate way.”
Fox News is looking at about a 50% reduction of on-the-ground personnel, Grzech said.
“That doesn’t mean our coverage overall is going to be reduced in the sense of what are we covering about the convention,” she said. “It’s just going to be done in a different fashion, so we might do more of that from D.C., than we would do [from elsewhere], as we have learned who are the real essential personnel who have to be on the ground and who can do things from a different location.”
Even when it looked like Jacksonville could be a go, CNN decided to forgo the idea of an 18-wheeler control room outside the convention arena in favor of producing from Washington.
“That decision we made for the safety of our staff, fewer people having to travel; we have more space in the control room than in the production truck to socially distance,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and SVP.
He did not have the exact figure but said it was a “significant reduction” in people being sent to the host cities.
“We know that conventions are going to look and feel different, different than they have in the past,” Feist said. “But everything looks and feels different, whether it is the coverage of the president with a socially distanced briefing room…or reporters or many of our anchors reporting from home or outside of the studios.”
CBS News already announced that anchor Norah O’Donnell would remain in Washington. Political director Caitlin Conant said that while they will have a “much smaller footprint” in the host cities, they are “trying to think outside the box” on coverage for those weeks, such as extending an ongoing series talking to voters across the country.
Conant said that the coronavirus crisis, the economic tumult and racial justice movement will likely be significant storylines through the weeks, as they will impact votes this fall in “a very real and personal way. It gives us a chance to shine a light on Democrats and Republicans what their votes mean to people.”
CBS News correspondent Nikole Killion said that the events perhaps may be more substantive. There will be no shots of delegates in the arena wearing red, white and blue outfits or 2020 hats, but “that does not mean it will not be more interesting in other ways,” she said.
C-SPAN also will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of the proceedings but will be sending a dozen or fewer people, compared to five times that amount in the past, said Steve Scully, the channel’s political editor, senior executive producer and host.
“This is going to be unlike any convention, really, in the history of American politics,” he said. He said that he will be staying in Washington, as are many news figures, in what has been known as the Super Bowl of American politics.
Scully thinks that this could change the nature of conventions permanently. For one, a question that comes up each cycle is whether each party actually needs four nights for the event, and this year could provide an answer.
“This all began with Iowa. Maybe that was an indication of the year to come,” Scully said, referring to the botched caucus results, something that also triggered calls for rethinking another tradition on the political calendar.
It’s been 40 years since a convention had at least some element of genuine suspense. That was when Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for his party’s nomination, at the Democratic convention; and when, at the Republican gathering, Ronald Reagan tried to strike a deal with former president Gerald Ford to serve as his running mate, only to decide on George H.W. Bush.
That doesn’t mean that the conventions since then have been free of drama. In 2016, Ted Cruz declined to endorse Trump, drawing boos as he spoke to the delegates; at the Democratic convention, Bernie Sanders supporters were ever-present in jeering throughout Hillary Clinton’s week, at one point even taking over one of the media tents.
In most recent cycles, cable networks have gone all out on coverage, while broadcast networks have limited the parties to about one hour per night. This time around, network executives again will be looking at what aspects of the events will newsworthy to warrant uninterrupted carriage.
“This time, I don’t know how much drama there’s going to be, probably less than usual, but we are going to find ways to make it interesting because it matters so much to the American people,” Woodruff said. “It is a chance for us to cover four days, four nights of what these parties have to say about where they want to take the country.”
So will it make for good TV?
“That is not only the big challenge, it is the $64,000 question…How do you make it interesting and watchable when you don’t even have crowd reaction?” Scully said.
As an example of what can make for compelling TV in the midst of the pandemic, Feist pointed to CNN’s Democratic debate in March between Biden and Sanders, which was moved from a Phoenix venue to the network’s Washington studios with no audience.
“It was highly rated, people watched it, and it was important,” Feist said. “And the biggest difference was that there wasn’t a crowd. The absence of a crowd does not fundamentally change the news value. It certainly could change how it feels. It could have an impact on the energy level. But I submit that the debate we had on March 15 was a strong debate and an important debate, and it all happened without any audience whatsoever.”
Bret Baier, chief political anchor for Fox News and anchor of Special Report, said he plans to go to Milwaukee, and is waiting to see “where exactly to go for the RNC,” whether it is Charlotte or wherever the president is delivering his remarks.”
“It will be a challenge to produce compelling television. I think they will do it with speeches and virtual events and people plugging in from around the country, supporters, et cetera,” Baier said. “And we will cover it like that, but it won’t have the same pizzazz as the people there cheering and the balloons dropping. But because people are paying attention to this election, it’s going to be very important. I think perhaps what takes over the biggest events will probably be the first general election debate, where the two candidates are head to head.”
As with much this cycle, the plans for that first debate, scheduled for September 29, are changing, too. This week, Notre Dame pulled out of plans to host it, with Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve taking its place. As of now.