Shift in Venue Upends Media

Posted July 14, 2008 at 6:41pm

When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) moved his convention speech from Denver’s Pepsi Center to Invesco Field at Mile High, he not only set the stage for a large outdoor rally — he trashed the carefully laid plans of every news bureau and television network planning to cover the event.

News companies big and small spend millions of dollars to cover the conventions and months wading through tedious logistics. But now they have about a month to plan for arguably the biggest story of the convention: the presidential nominee’s acceptance speech.

The Democratic National Committee announced the move July 7, citing a desire to bring the Democratic National Convention “to the people.” The Pepsi Center can fit only about 21,000 people, leaving room for only party and news insiders; Invesco Field can hold more than 75,000.

Obama will be the first presidential nominee to give his speech outside a convention center since John F. Kennedy addressed about 80,000 people in 1960 at Los Angeles’ Memorial Coliseum.

But recording that historical moment is going to stretch the budgets of news organizations — and the nerves of just about every reporter in town.

The television networks and cable stations are spending “well over $10 million” for the convention, said Paul Friedman, senior vice president at CBS News. And moving the last night of the convention to an entirely new venue, he said, represents a “substantial expense.”

There won’t be enough time to move equipment from the Pepsi Center to Invesco, he said, so networks will have to replicate their television setups, bringing in a second set of equipment for Invesco Field. They will also need the staff to run that equipment and the money to pay for it. They will have to install cable lines and microfilms.

And then they will have to plan for the area they get — for example, will they be filming from a skybox or from the ground?

“It’s nothing we can’t cope with, it’s just costing a lot of extra money,” Friedman said.

Newspapers — including Roll Call — have less to worry about. Reporters just need a laptop and a place to work; the expense would be for an extra phone line, for example, or Internet access.

“For the newspaper types, it’s basically grab your laptop, go over there after dawn and we’ll see you later,” said Mark Edgar, deputy managing editor of the Dallas Morning News. “The giant hassles are among the TV types.”

Still, reporters will have to start from scratch, finding their way around a venue three times as large as Pepsi Center. Logistics such as the number of press credentials, where to work and where to stand will have to be reworked. And then there are the things you can’t plan for — rain, for example.

Walter Shapiro, Salon’s Washington bureau chief, said he wasn’t worried because he already has low expectations.

“If Obama’s on the 50-yard line, I assume I’ll be on the upper deck on the 3-yard line,” he said.

But he and Friedman questioned the entire purpose of spending so much money and time on what they both called a nonstory.

“At what point does everybody say, ‘This is just nuts to be spending this much money to cover a nonstory?’” Friedman said. “The only story is the convention speech.”

The speech, of course, is the one and only story that Obama and the DNC removed from the Pepsi Center and placed last-minute at the Broncos’ Invesco Field stadium. So news organizations are stuck paying for it if they want the grand finale of the four-day event.

“It underscores for me once again that this is a TV show and the idea of watching a TV show behind the scenes instead of on a TV set seems sillier and sillier every convention I go to,” said Shapiro, who has been regularly attending conventions since 1984.

Reporters find themselves in a somewhat similar situation to protesters, who are now trying to make new plans for their activities during the speech. Already, groups have filed a lawsuit to ensure that the demonstration zone around the Pepsi Center is legitimate and fair. Now they’ll have to start over in their plans for the speech at Invesco Field — which will have the most people in attendance.

So far, the city has not released plans on where protesters can stand and how they can march to the stadium, which is about a half-mile from the Pepsi Center, said Mark Silverstein, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. But it will all be addressed in the current lawsuit, he said.

“I think everybody knows that we’ll now be talking about Invesco Field,” he said.

Despite it all, Shapiro said the move isn’t the biggest hassle of the convention — that goes to the lack of nearby hotels and inflated costs.

“We were already prepared for logistics to be nightmare. In addition to everything else, we’ll be sitting in a football stadium,” he said. “It’s gonna be just epic fun.”