The historic installation of the nation’s first African American president is creating unprecedented interest in programming related to Tuesday’s inauguration—as well as logistical nightmares for TV news crews.
Network and cable news executives say the same attention that could bring great ratings and high visibility for news departments creates the prospect of fighting through as many as 2 million people attending President-elect Barack Obama’s inauguration for camera angles, interviews and coverage.
The number of non-news cable channels and Internet sources airing coverage also could mean traditional networks and cable channels have to fight through additional media. That in turn has them turning to a new generation of technology to execute coverage plans.
“The potential scope of the size of this thing—an order of magnitude above anything we’ve seen—is driving a far different approach to our coverage,” said David Bohrman, senior VP and Washington bureau chief for CNN. “It’s biblical in size. It’s putting us in the position of putting resources and broadcast facilities in locations where we’ve never had them before.”
He cited as one example CNN’s plan to have a camera on a crane near the Washington Monument—a location CNN hasn’t used for an inauguration before. He also said CNN will be using 50 cameras.
Mr. Bohrman said he’s keenly aware that pre-event predictions of coverage nightmares could be overblown, but he’s living in fear of what happens if the estimates about crowd sizes in D.C. are right.
“If it does happen and you don’t prepare, with all this security, you won’t be able to get places or it’s going to be difficult to get places,” Mr. Bohrman said. “You have to be ready to cover a story that big and vast.”
ABC News political director David Chalian said there seems to be more demand for coverage from the public. Amidst the economic problems of recent months, the public seems to be focused on the inauguration like never before, he said.
“It starts where the election left off—with an unprecedented high level of interest about President Obama and the direction that he will take the country—but it’s only been increasing,” Mr. Chalian said. “Every inaugural is significant, but here you have the special significance of the first African American president and monumental problems of the country. You haven’t seen an inauguration of this size and scope in history nor a transfer in such a precarious place and time.”
He said ABC is working to make sure its coverage matches the public’s level of interest. The network was planning additional coverage all weekend before the inauguration, not just on Tuesday. The news teams also will make greater efforts to explain the changes the inauguration is likely to bring.
Phil Alongi, executive producer of NBC News’ inaugural coverage, also cites the high level of public attention as affecting his plans.
“We are doing about the same amount of coverage, but between the wars, the economic crisis and George Bush’s low approval ratings, people just want to celebrate. They want to feel good,” he said. “They want to feel they did the right thing. They want something to look forward to.”
He said the key is to find the right shot among the myriads of people. In President-elect Obama’s victory speech in Chicago on Election Night, the idea was to be in position to get the shot of tears streaming down supporters’ cheeks, he said. At the inaugural, the challenge is to get that and also capture the sheer size of the crowd through high shots.
Rick Kaplan, the veteran TV news executive who now is executive producer of CBS News, said Tuesday’s inauguration is very different from past ones.
“I have been involved in almost every [inauguration] but one since 1972, and nothing is the same between this inauguration and others,” he said. “Aside from this being the first African American to get the top job, I’ve never seen an inauguration with technology to follow as much. There used to be just five or six networks. This time, it’s like 20, and then there’s affiliates and Web sites. There is more interest than any time in my lifetime. We have, it seems, every camera we own here.”
He said the potential size of the crowd also means there are some new concerns.
“It’s not just camera placements,” he said. “It’s safe camera placements.”
Mr. Kaplan said that despite the economic constraints this year on the networks, “Some events are too big to ignore.”