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‘GMA’ in Training for ‘50 States’ Tour

Sep 14, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Roger Goodman, ABC’s VP for special projects, has successfully transmitted ABC News programming from a submerged nuclear submarine, an aircraft carrier, a cruise ship and a dinghy rocking in the icy North Atlantic.
GMA's Whistle-Stop 08 Tour
All his previous challenges pale next to rigging a nine-car Amtrak train to broadcast “Good Morning America’s” “Whistle-Stop ’08” tour live at speeds up to 60 mph. For five days and nights, the tour will move around the eastern U.S., picking up interviews with Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain along the way.
An interview with Sen. Obama was to be taped in New Hampshire over the weekend and broadcast today from the train. Sen. McCain is scheduled to meet the train Wednesday in Ohio to appear live. The process of booking other political voices began in earnest after “GMA” locked up the presidential candidates, according to the show’s senior executive producer, Jim Murphy.
As complicated as it is to book two hours’ worth of segments in seven states, it is less daunting than the planning Mr. Goodman has done over the past eight months. The tour kicks off ABC News’ “50 States in 50 Days” campaign in partnership with USA Today, which leads up to the election.
Start with the fact that wireless communications from inside a metal train can be tricky. Add the assorted other logistical and technical challenges and you begin to understand the scale of Mr. Goodman’s accomplishment.
To broadcast from the train, “GMA” set up a studio and control room at the center of the train, plus two edit booths and numerous phones and fax machines. The show had to be sure it could receive and transmit video and data without signal glitches.
To pull it off, Mr. Goodman orchestrated an array of logistics that rivals a military operation:
w “GMA” installed two gyroscopic satellite dishes on the train that will be locked on the Telstar14 orbiter 24 hours a day through Sept. 19, the last day of the trip.
– Two helicopters will hover at 8,000 to 10,000 feet (depending on weather) toward the front and back ends of the train, ready to receive and bounce a signal from the train to the nearest portable satellite antenna should something go amiss with the gyroscopic antennae.
– The show corralled some two dozen satellite phones to assure constant communication with ABC in New York, feeding an unbroken signal into earpieces worn by Diane Sawyer, Robin Roberts, Chris Cuomo and Sam Champion during the broadcasts. (Cell phones are too susceptible to loss of signal, although Mr. Goodman has devised a beefed-up cell-phone system that taps into multiple providers as a backup.)
– Mr. Goodman even booked a nurse, because there’s no wiggle room for someone not feeling their best.
As part of the preparation, the special projects VP took a “Trains, Planes and Automobiles” tour of the many locations “GMA” will travel to starting Monday, ranging from New York to Stockbridge, Mass.; then Niagara Falls, N.Y.; Ashtabula, Ohio; Harper’s Ferry, W.Va.; and over to Washington, D.C.
“We did it by helicopters. We did it walking the tracks. We did it by something called rail cars,” Mr. Goodman said last week while his crew was still installing, building and testing their technology on the train. “The problem is, it doesn’t matter what [technology] you have, if there are trees overhanging or bridges and tunnels, you’ll lose your satellite signal.”
Earlier that morning, Mr. Champion had done a live mini-tour of the train during “GMA” and the signal crackled and broke into static a few times.
“I lost an interior transmitter for 30 seconds,” Mr. Goodman said.
Aerial Video Systems of California supplied the helicopters as well as the microphones and SteadiCams being used on the train.
Among the 90 people working on the “GMA” project aboard the train will be about 20 Amtrak staffers. Mr. Murphy said ABC is paying Amtrak, which obviously gets a lot of enticing exposure through the week.
Amtrak helped “GMA” find a train car on which to mount the gyroscopic satellite dishes, dusting off a retired diesel cab that had been used for baggage—thus its nickname, the “cabbage” car—and took the top off. Mr. Goodman waterproofed it and mounted the satellite dishes. The signals directed at the helicopters will come from the “cabtenna” in a domed car mid-train.
Mr. Goodman’s team also will be able to communicate with the engineer if the train is, for some reason, running behind schedule. In that case, they can give the engineer the speed they need to hit to catch up.
Nearly as important as anything done during the two hours per day of the “GMA” broadcast is promoting what “GMA” is doing.
The anchors will be able to do live hits while on the move with the entertainment magazines, including “Live With Regis and Kelly” and other TV outlets.
ABC News VP and Creative Director Alan Ives put trucks emblazoned with artwork, the “GMA” logo and a countdown clock on the street in selected cities starting last week.
There will be heavy off-air promotion and Mr. Murphy is hitting up ABC for all the on-air spots he can get.
The candidates are coming on the show during the train trip knowing it is hitting some battleground states and getting heavy promotion, he said.
He said the plan for months has been for second-place “GMA” to “come back strong” after a season that was rough for a number of reasons, including first-place “Today’s” potent two weeks in Beijing for the Olympics.
While morning shows no longer routinely travel as they did in the 1980s and ’90s, this past season saw NBC’s “Today” show send its anchors to the North Pole, the South Pole and the Equator for live broadcasts. “GMA” did a “Wonders of America” tour.
“Is it costly? Yeah. But it’s not too costly,” Mr. Murphy said. “I’m sure that ‘Where in the World [Is Matt Lauer?]’ costs a lot of money. The Arctic adventure cost a lot of money.
“In the end, this is a business. These investments usually have a return. Sometimes they have a return that’s worth millions and millions of dollars over a few months,” he said. “Obviously, it is a business decision, as well as a journalistic decision.”
The strength of the content justifies the expense, he said.
“Journalistically, if you’re going to pick something to—you want to say stunt on—well then, go out and do something that’s actually valuable to people, which is allow them to have their voice in this election,” Mr. Murphy said. “Is it a stunt, too? Of course. We are a television program and we have a long history of doing these really interesting and intriguing and groundbreaking things as part of our programming.”

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