The early days of the 2008 presidential election have been full of surprises, and broadcasters are rolling with the punches.
“Why is it so difficult?” NBC News political director Chuck Todd said on the morning after the New Hampshire primaries. “Because it’s unpredictable. We found that out last night. We’ve got as difficult a race to cover as has ever been, with all sorts of logistical challenges.”
For voters, it’s the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that are making history, but for broadcasters, the race stands out for another reason. “We have double the size of the contest,” said ABC News political director David Chalian. “It’s the first time in 80 years that [neither] the sitting vice president [nor] the sitting president is seeking their party’s nomination. It’s an election of a lifetime in that way.”
At CBS News, Senior VP Paul Friedman noted the dramatic difference between the 2008 and 2004 campaigns. “Four years ago, there was an incumbent president, so that was one candidate covered,” he said. “That’s versus all the Republicans today, and there are also more Democratic candidates in the race at this point than last time around.”
Mr. Todd notes the competitive primary is a first for other reasons. “The last time we had this competitive a primary on both sides was 1988, and that was the pre-cable era,” he said. “So this is uncharted territory for everyone.”
In an era in which TV newsrooms have been streamlined, broadcasters have had to scramble to keep up with the logistics of covering so many candidates. “All the networks, frankly, are not automatically assigning camera crews and editors to each campaign,” said Mr. Friedman. “In the old days, they all traveled with a full team. Today, we will make judgments about keeping the correspondent and off-air reporter, but we don’t assign a producer, camera crew and editor, figuring if we need someone we can add it.”
At NBC News, Mr. Todd said the network has a partnership with National Journal, the trade publication for policy, politics and government. “We have seven off-air reporters from them that we share,” he said. “That doesn’t include all our correspondents. Editorially, we have as many as 20 people in the field at any one time.”
Mr. Chalian observed that, in addition to a double-sized contest, the timing of the election cycle has been challenging. “The interest in the election got more intense earlier than previous elections,” he said. “Getting geared up and getting all our folks assigned to their candidates a little earlier was a challenge. And, going forward, it remains an unsettled race. Now it’s a matter of the best deployment of resources to cover these unsettled races, all of which have very different strategies as to where they go and don’t go and where they spend their resources.”
The night of Jan. 14 is one such example. NBC News hosts the Jan. 14 Democratic Party debate in Nevada, the same night as the Michigan Republican primary results. “By 9 p.m. when our debates starts, who knows if the race will be called by then?” said Mr. Todd. “I’m looking forward to the moment, but have no idea how we’ll do it. This just shows the chaotic nature of this presidential race.”
Mr. Friedman noted that although the logistics of assigning people to campaigns is “old-
fashioned,” modern times have had an impact. “Now they all carry mini-DV cameras and computers with programs that allow them to feed in video fast, relatively easy and inexpensively,” he said. “They feed it to the news department, which then makes use of it both on TV and on the Web site.” CBS News currently has seven candidates covered 24/7, and Mr. Friedman reported, “We’ll adjust through the year as it becomes clearer.”
New media also plays a bigger role in the 2008 election than it has in the past. Even in the 2004 election, network and station Web sites were newer, broadband not as pervasive and mobile content didn’t exist. The existence of new platforms has expanded coverage, but also creates new tasks for already hard-pressed TV news departments.
“I do something for mobile, Internet, broadcast and cable nearly every day,” said Mr. Todd. “Today, on the Internet, we have our political news blog, which is updated constantly. We sent out a mobile alert about what’s on our blog to our subscribers. Then I produced a video for the mobile platform, for NBC Mobile, previewing the Michigan primary. Never mind all the network and cable stuff. We are all multiplatform. We are all filing for three or four different platforms on any given day.”
“Is it repurposing ideas?” he continued. “Sure, but it’s making certain that the content makes sense for each platform. You have to be short and quick for mobile. Cable, you get into more detail than you do on the network. That’s what’s great about it. You never feel like you’re leaving anything on the cutting room floor anymore.”
Though ideas are repurposed, the content for multiple platforms usually is original, said all the network executives. “We have four people on the Web site assigned to work on politics all the time,” said Mr. Friedman. “They call on the off-airs for their information and contributions, but they create original material and contribute to blogs.”
At ABC News, said Mr. Chalian, the digital space “has been integral in our being able to provide extensive political coverage.” He noted the newest innovation is the speed at which an off-air reporter can use file transfer protocol to submit video material, which can then almost instantaneously be placed on the Web site.
“The digital universe has exploded in the last few years, and it seems to be a perfect platform for political content,” Mr. Chalian said. “It provides us so much more space to provide political news to viewers, readers and listeners.”
At ABC News, he said, off-air reporters are “full-service” reporters who shoot with DV cameras and edit on laptops. “We put out these off-air reporters who are able to shoot video and upload it to the Web site so people can have it immediately,” he said. “One advantage we have over other political Web sites is video. That’s our business. And people love to click on video on the Web sites. We’re reaching lots and lots of viewers who aren’t waiting until 6:30 p.m. for the world news.”
ABC Now, a 24/7 digital broadband network, is another location in digital space for political coverage, with a daily political show. “We also deliver content to people’s cell phones or BlackBerries,” he said. “However the viewer wants to receive it, they can have it, and it’s a lot of original content. All these platforms allow for longer-form material, for more behind-the-scenes or on-the-campaign-trail stuff.”
After Super Tuesday, on Feb. 5, the race may calm down. Or not. “It depends on the candidates,” said Mr. Todd. “There could be two nominees on Feb. 6, but I’m less convinced. Even so, it’s up to the two nominees on how much news they want to generate. This general election could be the longest one in the history of the country.”