The Democratic convention in the age of a pandemic: hundreds of live feeds and four stages

The Democratic Convention In The Age Of A Pandemic: Hundreds Of Live Feeds And Four Stages
A sign advertises the convention at Wisconsin Center, home to the 2020 Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee on August 11, 2020. - Former US president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle will deliver keynote speeches during next week's Democratic National Convention when Joe Biden will be confirmed as the party's White House challenger in the November election. The Democratic Party announced on August 11, 2020 that Obama will give a primetime address next Wednesday, the convention's penultimate evening, while former first lady Michelle Obama will address the convention on Monday, opening night.The convention had been set for Milwaukee, in the battleground state of Wisconsin. But the coronavirus pandemic has upended the plans of both parties, forcing them to convert the normally raucous in-person events into online affairs. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP) (Photo by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images)

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Critics have derided the political conventions as a glorified TV show for several election cycles. This year, that’s what it really truly is: a television production with live shots and short clips from all across the country.

The Democrats’ big show begins on Monday evening. “The slimmed-down convention will be a mix of live and prerecorded speeches and highly produced visual elements,” Astead W. Herndon and Reid J. Epstein of The New York Times wrote Sunday. Their story carried a Milwaukee dateline, but noted that “there will be no official business conducted in Milwaukee.” A virtual convention, indeed.

Hundreds of live feeds

From CNN’s Jessica Dean: “The Democrats’ virtual convention will feature hundreds of live feeds from across the country and four stage set-ups located in New York City, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and Wilmington, Delaware, according to a source who has seen recent convention plans.”

“The entirely virtual convention will feature emcees to lead the evening’s two hour program, with those people broadcasting primarily out of the LA studio, according to the source,” Dean wrote. “Additionally there will be live speakers from across the country every night broadcasting from historic and symbolic locations which will thematically reinforce their remarks.”

ABC’s John Verhovek reported that the Democrats plan to structure the first night of the convention around a “trio of crises gripping nation.” Those are Covid-19, the recession, and the national reckoning over racial injustice. The Daily Beast likened the convention to the DNC’s “Most Important Zoom Meeting” ever.

Behind the scenes with Ricky Kirshner

Hundreds of people are producing this giant Zoom call. They are led by the DNC’s executive producer since 1992, Ricky Kirshner, who also produces Super Bowl halftime shows and Tony Awards telecasts. He told Michael Scherer of the Washington Post, “Anything can happen. It is not scripted, I can tell you that. There is so much live in this show.”

Some elements are scripted, though, of course — and some speeches are being recorded ahead of time. The live footage “will be mixed in real time with a roughly equal share of prerecorded performances, mini-documentaries and speeches,” Scherer wrote.

And that’s a source of tension between the convention organizers and the TV networks. NBC, ABC and CBS have committed to one hour of convention coverage per night — the 10 p.m. Eastern hour. Cable channels like CNN have scheduled special coverage all evening, but that doesn’t mean the convention TV show will automatically break through. “The new circus” could flop “if the broadcast and cable networks have their on-air talent talk over all of the carefully prepared set pieces and less-partisan viewers decide to dismiss the spectacle as an overlong propaganda film,” Scherer wrote.

No doubt loyal Democrats will watch the official DNC live stream on the web, and Republicans will do the same a week from now. But what moments will break through for a broader audience? We shall see.

Why the conventions matter

These comments in George Winslow’s Broadcasting & Cable cover story hit the nail on the head:

— “With the issues the country is facing right now with the coronavirus and the economic decline and the racial unrest, the conventions will provide voters with plans for how each party plans to tackle these problems and what the country is going to look like under a Democratic president or a Republican president,” ABC’s senior executive producer for special events Marc Burstein said.

— CBS News political director Caitlin Conant said the conventions “will let the candidates basically reintroduce themselves to America and bring the focus back to politics.”

Notes and quotes

— Trump is phoning into “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning. Notably, this comes at the same time his campaign tries to counter-program the DNC with a massive digital ad buy.

— And it comes on the heels of Trump’s latest tweet bashing Fox’s news operation. He said the network is “not watchable during weekend afternoons” and encouraged people to watch One America News instead.

— While Trump is on Fox, Biden surrogates are blanketing other morning shows: Elizabeth Warren is on “Today,” Pete Buttigieg and Muriel Bowser are on “Morning Joe,” Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar are on “New Day,” and Booker is also on “CBS This Morning.”

— Bloomberg’s Jennifer Epstein noted that Kamala Harris’s first three interviews after the VP announcement were with Black women: The 19th’s Errin Haines, The Grio’s Natasha Sonia Alford and Essence’s Tanya Christian.

— The most memorable line from The Grio interview: “They’re going to engage in lies,” Harris said… “And we’re ready.

— Sabrina Singh is joining the Biden-Harris campaign as the press secretary for Harris.

Trump lies to reporters while Biden avoids reporters

Two things can be troubling at the same time without being equally bad. Case in point: Biden’s inaccessibility. Reporters are rightly calling out Biden for failing to hold a press conference in recent days. That’s bad — but it’s worse for Trump to spread disinformation at his press conferences. I hashed this out on Sunday’s “Reliable” Sources telecast with Asma Khalid, John F. Harris and Olivia Nuzzi.

“There is a frustration, I will say, as somebody who spends a lot of time covering the Biden campaign, that he has not been particularly accessible,” Khalid said. “I mean, this past week, he rolled out his vice president. I think many journalists expected there would be some format where we would be able to ask questions,” but there was not.

Harris noted that this is strategic on Biden’s part: “They know what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and we can holler about it. And voters can decide how much they care.”

ABC lands first joint interview with Biden and Harris

ABC has booked the “first joint network interviews” with Biden and Harris. The network says David Muir will have the sit-down interview and Robin Roberts “will have a conversation with Biden and Harris on the history-making Democratic presidential ticket.” The interviews will air in a prime time special on Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern.