Forget the luxury-suite studios soaring above the convention stage. Or the morning-show stars flown in for an on-scene dispatch. Or the armies of television crews and correspondents trawling the arena floor for rebellious delegates.
This year’s political conventions — a quintessential, quadrennial TV spectacle — are rapidly shrinking in the face of the coronavirus. And so are the coverage plans of the news networks, who are expecting the usual media circus to resemble something closer to a county fair.
“I’m kind of bummed,” said Steve Scully, the senior executive producer of C-SPAN, who will skip traveling to the conventions for the first time since 1988. “We won’t be anchoring anything from Jacksonville, Milwaukee or Charlotte, and we’ve never done it that way.”
It is a rite of passage in any campaign reporter’s career to cover the national conventions, four days of pageantry and coronation mixed with gossip, open bars and even some genuine news (recall 2016, when Sen. Ted Cruz, startlingly, declined to endorse Donald Trump in his prime-time address).
But this year, Democratic officials have warned many delegates to stay home, and the festivities in Milwaukee were shifted to a smaller venue. Republicans are splitting their proceedings between Charlotte, North Carolina, the original site, and an arena in Jacksonville, Florida, where Trump is eager for the made-for-TV visuals of accepting the nomination before a packed, roaring crowd. (Because of health concerns, it remains unclear if he will get his wish.)
In response, many TV networks are now planning to keep correspondents stationed outside the convention venues, where the risk of transmission is lower. Instead of sitting in custom-built skybox studios, many anchors and commentators will offer analysis from desks in Washington and New York — or from their home quarantines. In one scenario floated by network executives, reporters could avoid entering the venue completely.
“We know it’s going to be more constrained,” said John Dickerson, the CBS News anchor and political historian. “There will be less coverage of the nooks and crannies.”
Networks typically fly hundreds of crew members to convention cities, where they construct elaborate sets and maintain an on-the-ground newsroom, complete with well-stocked snack spreads and makeup trailers. In a pandemic, those plans have been mostly abandoned. Even basic transportation is proving to be a headache.
“I’d love it if it was the Fox charter, but I don’t know if it’s in the cards,” Bret Baier, Fox News’ chief political anchor, said when asked how he planned to travel from Washington to the conventions. (It is not unusual for well-funded cable news channels to charter private planes to efficiently transport large portions of their team.)
“We’ll mask up, use our Purell and get there,” Baier added, saying he may drive to events in Charlotte and Jacksonville. “This is not going to be the full army deployment, but it’s going to be the special ops. A smaller team, but we’ll still get the job done.”
In interviews, anchors and executives at the major TV news networks — all of whom emphasized that their plans were not yet final — said that employee safety would be the top priority, even as they grapple with unique challenges for each party’s event.
Officials at the Republican National Committee have continued to insist that Trump’s convention will resemble the full-throated fête that the president yearns for — despite a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in Florida and a local Jacksonville requirement that face masks be worn at indoor gatherings. Republican fundraisers and committee members there say the pandemic has made the planning particularly daunting, as donors wait to see how the virus will affect the event.
“The two different conventions sound like they’re going to look a lot different,” Baier said. “I know what the Trump campaign and the RNC are planning and would like to see, but it may not be that. The Democrats’ scaled-back version in Milwaukee may be closer to what’s possible.”
The Republicans’ focus on a packed house has caused some tension on weekly planning calls between the party and network executives, according to several participants who were not authorized to publicly describe the conversations.
If social-distancing concerns prompt news networks to dispatch fewer correspondents to Jacksonville than to the Democrats’ event in Milwaukee, Trump may cry foul, accusing the mainstream media of unequal treatment. (“We are hopeful and expecting to have a significant media presence from print, radio and TV,” said a Republican Party spokesperson, Michael Reed.)
Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News, said regardless of the parties’ plans or desires, “We’re going to keep our people safe and provide thorough, objective coverage of these events.”
“There’s a fairly broad and deep consensus that indoor gatherings of large quantities of people are not safe, at least according to most public health authorities,” Oppenheim said. “We are not going to send our reporters into packed arenas, if such things exist.”
Even with a smaller network footprint, what audiences see in prime-time may end up similar to conventions past.
All of the networks, for instance, will rely on the same universal camera feed of the convention stage, where the major speakers appear. This time, to avoid overcrowding, networks are planning to expand this so-called “pool” feed to include other events in smaller spaces, like delegates’ breakfasts.
“The most important news of a convention tends to come from what’s said onstage, and so in that respect, that’s not likely to change,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief.
It may be eerier, though. The tableau of a presidential candidate trying to rally voters by speechifying to a relatively empty arena runs counter to most modern notions of political TV. Imagine Clint Eastwood and the chair on a grander scale.
“Politics is a sense of moment that crystallizes what’s really at stake,” Dickerson said. “If Barack Obama had given his speech in 2004 to a socially distanced hall, would it have had the same effect? It requires the excitement in the room to elevate the speech, and that’s what we’ll miss.”
Even before the coronavirus, it was unlikely that ABC, CBS and NBC would devote much broadcast time to the proceedings. In 2016, each network scheduled four hours of prime-time coverage over four days. (The 24-hour cable networks still cover the conventions wall-to-wall.)
An average of 26.2 million people watched the Democrats each night, compared with 24.6 million who watched the Republicans, according to Nielsen. Millions more likely tuned in via social media and livestreams.
Given public interest in the 2020 election, some executives believe this year’s conventions will attract significant viewership. The novelty of a live broadcast carries appeal, at a time when networks have few live sporting events and dwindling entertainment options to choose from. Restrictions on going out because of the coronavirus could mean that audiences are often at home in the evenings.
But TV programmers face another conundrum: Unlike in past election years, the presidential campaign is not the No. 1 news story in the country.
“It’s clear now that the COVID crisis has not yet been solved, and of course the national reckoning about race and policing is an enormous story,” said Feist of CNN. “Most election years the election is the biggest story, sometimes the only story.
“In 2020,” he added, “that’s just not the case.”
This article was written by Michael M. Grynbaum, a reporter for The New York Times.