Election Goes to the Street

Oct 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Graphics conveying scads of information about races and polling throughout the country are essential to networks’ coverage on election night, but on Nov. 2, CNN’s and NBC Universal’s dueling displays will spill out onto the streets of Midtown Manhattan.

CNN has rented the NASDAQ MarketSite for a reported $200,000. The network plans to fill the 96-screen video wall in its windowed streetside studio as well as the seven-story tower that floods Times Square with some of the brightest lights on the stretch of Broadway known as The Great White Way. CNN’s goal: to help tell with data the election story developing throughout what experts say may be a long night.

David Bohrman, CNN’s Washington bureau chief and VP of news and production, arrived in New York last week to begin testing CNN’s election-night program. It will be able to integrate maps and live video feeds from the field with “cards” showing advancing vote counts and analysis of issues identified in exit polling.

Mr. Bohrman will preside over five control rooms. One is at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, where all live feeds will be collected and funneled to New York. There, three new control rooms will be fully staffed at Time Warner Center. In addition, there will be a control room at the NASDAQ building in New York, where Wolf Blitzer and other talent and a studio crew will be located.

“Seeing all the numbers flow in is sort of reassuring,” said Mr. Bohrman, who planned to spend several days last week “pounding” the system in tests and then to start familiarizing Mr. Blitzer with it over last weekend.

Some seven blocks north, Rockefeller Plaza has been converted into an outdoor democracy exhibit and studio in which each NBC Universal news entity, from MSNBC to flagship station WNBC-TV, New York, and Spanish-language network Telemundo, has a booth and a view of the wall on which bars of light will climb as the electoral vote comes in. Also at the plaza’s center will be a stadium-size video screen displaying data and images.

It will take special camera angles to show the map of the USA that has been outlined under the ice of the Rockefeller rink and that will be filled in state by state with fabric colored to indicate which presidential candidate has won a state’s electoral votes. Once all results are in, the fabric map will be frozen under more ice.

Since Oct. 20 public spaces surrounding the rink and the anchor booths have been strewn with such testaments to the country’s political system as a full-size replica of Air Force One.

The Democracy Plaza exhibit was the brainchild of Mark Lukasiewicz, the executive producer of NBC News’ Decision 2004 political coverage. The exhibit will remain open until Nov. 5 and was produced by Tishman Speyer Properties, a co-owner of Rockefeller Center. It is sponsored by Bank of America, which paid a reported $4.5 million in a deal worked out by NBC Universal sales but which is said not to include any related commercial time. However, Bank of America will be credited in a number of public service announcement “vignettes,” an NBC News spokeswoman said.

“It’s a chance to bring the whole NBC family together and share information, share resources,” said Mr. Lukasiewicz. Testing of the thermometer-style electoral-vote display, which is likely to hit the winning number of 270 electoral votes at about the 12th floor, will begin this week.

Democracy Plaza-and the heavy use of the NBC family of journalists and news programs to promote it-has inspired some trepidation in the ranks of NBC News and some caustic comments from NBC’s competitors.

Tom Brokaw, for whom this will be the last election night as primary anchor, described the exhibit as “just a stage setting.”

The NBC News spokeswoman described the effort to tie news coverage on election night to the tourist attraction as an attempt to knit together a “destination for political junkies.”

Mr. Brokaw’s “Nightly News” successor, Brian Williams, and the decision desk will be located downstairs in the plaza’s concourse. That means Mr. Williams and the desk will be away from the public eye and away from TV screens that might influence the desk to speed up its deliberations to keep up with the competition.

At the other networks, there are no plans to beam graphics onto anything but TV screens.

Al Ortiz, executive producer and director of special events coverage for CBS News, last week was “fine-tuning” a video map that can be shaded in “to display for the first time how the count is going, down to the county-by-county level.”

At Fox News Channel, which is midway between the CNN-NASDAQ video display and Democracy Plaza, a spokesman said that, as on average days, passers-by would be able to watch the network’s political teams at work in the windowed street-level Studio D.

“Isn’t that what a news organization is supposed to do?” the spokesman asked rhetorically.