WFLA, WFTS, WTSP and WTVT began planning a year ago to make sure they would be ready when the Republican National Convention gets underway from Aug. 27 to 30. The preparation includes figuring out how to deal with the heavy security that encases political conventions and devising contingencies plans in case that security is breached or if other emergencies arise. Nobody is saying exactly what the extra effort is costing, although one station said its budget is running “north of six figures.”
The Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., is three weeks away, but covering it is already shaping up to be the biggest undertaking for Don North in seven years as news director of Media General’s WFLA, the market’s NBC affiliate.
The 2009 Super Bowl pales in comparison, North says. “We are going to cover this as aggressively as anything we do. One way or another, everyone is going to be involved,” he says.
The 14th largest TV market’s other network affiliates — Scripps’ WFTS (ABC), Gannett’s WTSP (CBS) and Fox-owned WTVT — are also gearing up for maximum coverage of the four-day event (Aug. 27-30) that will center on the Tampa Bay Times Forum, but also include other venues around the market.
“It’s mind boggling,” says WFTS GM Rich Pegram. To prepare, he says, the station has done everything from survey stations in previous convention host cities to contract additional employees so that it will be able to explain “how [the convention] is going to impact … lives,” he says.
“Some people may just think it’s a convention, but in terms of economic impact they say it’s bigger than three Super Bowls,” Pegram says. “This is history.”
According the GOP organizers, the convention is expected to draw 50,000 visitors, led by presumptive nominee Mitt Romney and including some 4,400 delegates and alternates, thousands of other party bigwigs and 15,000 credentials reporters, producers, bloggers and other media types.
News executives at all four stations say they started planning for this a year ago, not only because of the convention’s national importance, but because they know it has the potential to turn life upside down for area residents.
The preparation includes figuring out how to deal with the heavy security that encases political conventions these days and devising contingencies plans in case that security is breached or if other emergencies arise. Some reporters and producers are getting safety training.
Nobody is saying exactly what the extra effort is costing, although one station said its budget is running “north of six figures.”
The monthly planning meetings at WTSP soon became weekly, says News Director Peter Roghaar. Today, the news team is involved in daily conversations with everyone from local and Washington officials to broadcasters from other Gannett stations who will be in town to help out, he says.
Everyone who works in the newsroom will somehow have a role in its coverage, he adds.
“It’s almost like a hurricane situation,” says Roghaar. Extended shifts and a six- or even seven-day workweek are on tap for much of his crew. “This is a full-force effort.”
The stations’ engineers are working hard, managing the construction of temporary studios in skyboxes in the convention center, from which they all will broadcast their newscasts during the convention.
Not only do they need to wire the place, but they also need to be furnish and spruce up the skyboxes so they look good for the newscasts. As North says: “Just having a suite is one thing, outfitting the suite is another.”
The techs are also making sure the stations can broadcast from numerous other spots around the market, including the host committee’s massive welcome party in St. Petersburg on the Sunday before the official start (Aug. 26) and the designated protest zone outside the arena.
WFTS has hired a short-term executive producer to work exclusively on convention coverage, concentrating first on logistics and now on content, Pegram says. That station also has hired private security to look out for staffers.
Traffic and parking is expected to be such a nightmare that WFLA has rented a 15-person van to shuttle its crew around.
Among other things, the stations will have to deal with the closure of a five-mile stretch of a major expressway that goes right through downtown.
“I’ve dealt with Super Bowls and I have coordinated inaugural coverage,” says WTSP’s Managing Editor Carolyn Dolcimascolo. “But this is four nights worth and each night is almost just as big as the other.”
The stations are also busy coordinating with their networks and with efforts involving stations and other media within their groups.
Nowhere will that be more apparent than in the skybox studio WTSP will be sharing with fellow Gannett properties, including USA Today.
The multimedia Gannett contingent will include 19 broadcasters from Gannett stations in Jacksonville, Atlanta and Cleveland, says Rob Mennie, Gannett Broadcasting VP and senior news executive.
Gannett plans a similar effort for the Democratic National Convention, starting Sept. 3 in Charlotte, N.C.
Although Gannett employees shared workspaces during the 2008 conventions, this is the first year that content will be shared to a large degree, Mennie says. “In the past, we had people coming in, nodding to each other and maybe saying good morning,” he says. “Now we will be more efficient and will have better coverage.”
Journalists from other Scripps-owned TV stations and newspapers, as well as the Scripps Howard News Service, will share content with WFTS, Pegram says.
WTVT, the Fox station, has a “sizable” political team, which will do a good deal of convention coverage itself, says John Hoffman, the station’s news director.
That station will also have access to content from the Fox News Channel, both of which will have additional workspace at the Tampa Bay History Center next to the Forum.
The Tampa stations plan to leave most of the political coverage to their networks and company pool efforts so that they can concentrate on any disruption the convention — and possible protests — will have on the local citizenry.
“You have to make sure you don’t alienate the local viewers because they may not care what’s going on inside,” WTSP’s Dolcimascolo says.
Adds Hoffman: “The mayor is encouraging everyone to enjoy it with all the guests, but I think most people will stay away. But we will be right there in the thick of it.”
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