While journalists from around the globe descend on North Carolina’s “Queen City” next month to cover every imaginable angle of the Democratic National Convention, local TV reporters will be dealing with the traffic tie-ups, celebrity sightings and other convention-related events affecting their viewers.
A visit by a sitting U.S. president always puts local TV news staffs into overdrive. But when President Barack Obama comes to Charlotte, N.C. (DMA 25), next month, he will be bringing with him Vice President Joe Biden and 3,792 of their dearest friends — the delegates who will nominate them to serve for four more years.
While thousands of journalists from around the globe descend on North Carolina’s “Queen City” to cover every imaginable angle of the Democratic National Convention (DNC), TV newsrooms in Charlotte also have to deal with the traffic tie-ups, celebrity sightings and other convention-related events affecting their local viewers.
In addition, there will still be local news to cover having nothing to do with the political convention.
“We’ve all sent people to conventions, but it’s a heck of a lot different to have one coming to your town,” says Dennis Milligan, news director of Raycom’s WBTV, the CBS affiliate that also produces a daily 10 p.m. newscast for Capitol Broadcasting’s WMYT (MNT).
The convention officially starts Monday, Sept. 3, but preliminary events start three days earlier.
The main venue is the the Time Warner Cable Arena, but the convention moves to the larger Bank of America Stadium several blocks away on Thursday for President Obama’s acceptance speech.
The city is hosting “Carolina Fest,” a street festival with lots of participation from the visiting Democrats. Fortunately for the TV stations, the organizers decided some time ago to move it to the center city from the more remote Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The stations have been preparing for the convention since Charlotte was officially selected as the host city in February 2011, and preliminary planning began even before that since the city was announced as a finalist months earlier.
What began as monthly planning meetings for management, news and engineering execs at the stations turned into weekly meetings and their frequency is increasing as the convention approaches.
“Preparation will go up to and probably continue to some degree even as you are going through the convention,” says Milligan. “The one thing that’s safe to say is that we’re making ourselves ready for just about anything, understanding that the best laid plans may have to be adjusted as we go into an event of this size and covering it.”
Milligan says his station has been budgeting for overtime, with staffers working 10-hour shifts, six days a week around the event, along with hiring some temps.
With hotel rooms in great demand, Raycom has rented a house for the eight to 10 Raycom producers and reporters coming from other markets to help keep Raycom’s online digital feed up-to-the-minute on DNC happenings.
Being located a short distance from the convention venues actually has a down side for WBTV, Milligan says. The station’s heliport is too close to the no-fly zone being established by DNC security so “that has required us to move the helicopter up to a nearby local airport where we’ll have the pilot and a photographer stand by to be dispatched from there.”
At Belo’s NBC affiliate WCNC, News Director Corrie Harding says he learned a lot about such events three years ago covering the G-20 summit while working in Pittsburgh. Protesters, for example, don’t always stay in the areas designated for them by the authorities.
One difference from Pittsburgh is that reporters are able to go live from just about anywhere with new wireless, mobile technologies.
“You don’t have to rely on a big old Econoline van live truck with a 40-foot mast to be able to go live,” Harding says. “All of our people are equipped with various devices — iPhones, iPads, portable transmission devices – that will allow them to get live signals or … at least be able to get the material back in very short order from a lot of different locations.”
His staff will be working 12 hours on, 12 hours off shifts through the convention, with Belo sending in additional staff and resources from other markets. WCNC’s studios are adjacent to NBC News Channel, the Charlotte-based news video feed service for NBC affiliates, so the two have been coordinating coverage plans, along with NBC News in New York. WCNC will have its suite inside the arena next door to NBC Nightly News.
“You’re never ready for what you don’t know,” says Joe Pomilla, GM of ABC affiliate WSOC and independent WAXN. Parent Cox Media Group is sending in a security team to make sure that employees are safe, whatever may come along. Like the others, Pomilla is preparing for considerable overtime and other expenses with what he says is a six-figure budget-buster.
No one is expecting any additional ad revenues of significance from coverage of the convention, but North Carolina is a contested swing state, so the stations have been on the receiving end of heavy political spending this year.
In an effort to stand out from the other stations and appeal to the younger demos targeted by Fox, Bahakel Communications’ WCCB is basing its convention coverage in the parking lot of an Italian restaurant with a good view of the nearby arena. Assistant news director Angela Robbins says it “makes a great backdrop” for the station’s four-hour morning news block.
“Not only will we be in close proximity to the convention, but we’ll get regular people as well,” she says. “We’ll keep one foot in the arena and one foot in the real world.”
Reporting on how the convention will impact the real world will be the focus of much of the stations’ coverage. Many companies in uptown office buildings are telling employees to work from home during the convention since the security “hard zone” around the DNC is pretty much guaranteed to create traffic problems.
Also, a major transportation hub near the convention site is being temporarily moved, so the TV stations will try to explain how people can get from point A to point B.
Security is a big issue and all of the TV news departments are participating in sessions with local and federal law enforcement agencies to understand how reporters can do their jobs while the police keep the convention area secure and deal with protests wherever they may erupt.
“This is going to be the biggest story that many of the people in this newsroom have ever covered in their careers, whether they’re 10- or 20-year veterans or brand new folks,” says WCNC’s Harding.
Adds Robbins: “We’re excited about it and we’re ready to do it.”