Reflections From A Cornfield: Iowa Debate!

November 19, 2015

A television remote site has often been compared to a small army invasion and that comparison makes a lot of sense. When that site is being run by a major network, the numbers and resources increase tenfold. And when that site has anything to do with politics, especially Presidential politics, it truly becomes an event on the scale of a major military operation.

 

I had the good fortune to be hired to work on the CBS Democratic Presidential Debate and along the way, took some photos and had some observations to make.

 

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It all starts out so innocently enough. Arriving at the venue, in this case, Drake University in Iowa, several large trucks unload all of our gear. Case after case, quite possibly over 200 in total gets placed in the compound which will very quickly become home base. Then, it begins. As everyone gets there, we all break off in to our groups based on what needs to get done.

 

Technicians ready cameras and all the cables from power to audio to video to internet. All of them must be run from one of the truck’s underbellies, which have thousands of input and output stations. Each truck acts as a literal motherboard for everything that will happen.

 

The carpenters and set design team begin to build the stage that will be used on debate night. Riggers and lighters set up all the framework to hang lights and fly in other needed pieces to get everything up and running.

 

The production team huddles up in the conference and press rooms and begins to script and construct how the debate will unfold.  All of their plans would shift radically after the tragic terrorist attacks on Friday, the day before the debate was scheduled. What was once going to be focused less on global issues became entirely moot.

 

All of this happens in the span of about 4 days. From zero to 100.

 

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CBS partnered with Twitter for this debate, which added some new wrinkles to the setup. Trying to successfully integrate the internet, especially the realtime elements that Twitter represents meant more than a few sudden changes and a lot of brand new ideas of how to channel everything through a main system in order for it all to be coordinated for the broadcast.

 

In a given hour, there would be several “Well, we’ve never tried this before but it should work” discussions. Some worked, some didn’t, but in the end, everything did end up performing smoothly.

 

As with every remote, there was plenty of snacks readily available. As I have written about before, the temptation to load up on sugar and comfort food is high as the hours are long and there are constantly new tasks and fires to put out. More than a few members of the crew readily admit that a diet may well be in order upon our return after the debate was over.

 

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As the debate approached, there was a definite uptick in people from the fringe appearing. Some demanding to be heard. Others to protest. One man gave me his personal manifesto for why HE should be included in the debate:

 

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By the end of that last day before the debate, a perimeter had been set up and people such as this gentleman now had a much harder time getting close enough to hand out his business cards.

 

Some could argue that putting up a barrier seems to fly in the face of democracy as it puts a gap between the people, the press and the candidates but especially in light of what happened in France, security was extremely heightened.

 

Around 4 hours before the debate started, Secret Service did a full security sweep. This basically means EVERYONE has to leave the compound as they take a thorough walk-through of the entire setup. They open any boxes, walk every length of cable and make note of anything that appears out of place. During this time, the crew usually has a large meal together and then spends the rest of the time milling around, waiting to get back in.

 

To pass our time, we, being in the television business, ran another cable line that enabled us to watch some college football. Anything to pass the time:

 

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Finally, the sweep ends and everyone is allowed back in. Thankfully, the entire night went off without much of a problem.

 

One tidbit I will share from my friend who mic’d each of the candidates: They were all talking a bit about their own fitness routines, from doing planks to walking on the treadmill right up until they were about to take the stage. Then, it became all about business.

 

After the debate ended, everyone made a beeline for what is known as “Spin Alley”, the area where surrogates and sometimes the candidates themselves talk to the press and say how they think they did. They almost always have a positive take on everything, hence the “Spin” name.

 

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After all that madness dies down, all that is left is to breakdown. Much like a rock band after a gig, this is not nearly  as energetic as the setup but happens much more swiftly. The setup took the better part of the week but the teardown is done all in the span of a day. Partially because the venue will be needed for classes the next day, partially because the gear is needed for the next event and mostly because everyone can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

As the last truck is packed up and pulls away, it’s like school ending with some of the crew saying goodbye, promising to stay in touch but not sure when they’ll actually see each other again. Yet, the cycle continues, ever onward. What is certain is that everything will only get bigger, crazier and more expansive as the election season really ramps up.

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