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August 31, 2004

Down at the Tick Tock Diner, I Caught Up With CNN

In which the demise of the network sky box is confirmed, a conceit of Americana (the typical diner) is indulged, and subtle differences appear in how the protests are to be weighed against events at the convention.

Madison Square Garden, Aug. 30: Today I dropped by CNN’s Tick Tock Diner, which sits on Eighth Avenue and 34 Street, catty corner from the arena and well inside the security perimeter. It’s hard to say exactly what the Diner is during its temporary lease to CNN.

“It has all the trappings of a diner,” wrote Dante Chinni in the Christian Science Monitor. “There are chrome stools and booths, and waiters dressed in CNN aprons and shirts. But there’s no real diner— it’s more of a VIP/media lounge cum TV-show set.”

Now according to Sam Feist, senior executive producer for political programming, the idea was to grab a location “that screamed New York.” And said politics. This is it, he said, gesturing around— a true New York Diner.

“Did you have breakfast?” Sam said. I told him I was working. Eason Jordan, executive vice president and chief news executive of CNN, asked me the same thing. Did you have breakfast?

I figured out later that they wanted me to stay and order a real breakfast, on the house, because the Tick Tock Diner was having serious trouble keeping the quote marks at bay. It was supposed to be both a real diner and some television guy’s idea of a typical one— a diner “that screamed New York.”

It was supposed to have the properties of an informal gathering space—all the hubbub of a convention—and the properties of a television studio, in which everything is thought through a hundred and two times. “Candidates go to diners,’ Sam Feist told me. “Politics and diners go hand in hand.”

The Diner was one of the spaces CNN had designed to bring you and I “closer to the convention,” a phrase in use in all my conversations at the Tick Tock. From them I confirmed the impression I had shared with PressThink readers (see this post). The sky box is dead, its vision outmoded. It is being abandoned as a base for convention coverage.

“I challenged my political team to come up with a different way of presenting the convention,” Princell Hair told me. (Bio.) He’s executive vice president and general manager of CNN/U.S. Sam Feist’s boss.

“We want to get out of the hermetically sealed skyboxes at both conventions,” said Feist. “If you are locked behind a thick glass wall where you can’t even hear the convention going on, you don’t feel the excitement, you’re further away from the delegates…” CNN had made improvements, he said. “We went shopping.”

Key purchase: microphones able to pick up an anchor’s voice, and screen out the crowd. Ear pieces capable of screening out the crowd and piping in the program. The stuff was around (pop stars used it) but it had not been used at a political event before, according to Feist.

“Nobody had ever asked to anchor convention coverage from the floor,” Feist said as we shared a booth— like real diners. CNN got the new gear, tested it out, and made the request to the Democrats. The Democrats said yes. And right there the sky box era at conventions came to an end.

“Our goal was to take our viewers into the convention hall so they experience the excitement of the convention,” he said. “To do it, we had to get out of the skybox.” In the Fleet Center the primary CNN studio was a slightly raised platform right on the convention floor. The RNC would not provide that same access. So the CNN platform is as close as possible, near Gate 64, bordering one section of delegates.

In a symbolic gesture, CNN built the sky boxes at the Garden without glass. They are open to the crowd noise, in the same room with the event. In 2004, Feist said, “the bulk of our anchoring is going to be done from our platform on the floor” and others around the perimeter— or down the street. The sky box is now auxiliary space, in a way the least desirable.

The network vantage points are multiplying. “The cookie cutter approach to covering the conventions in a thing of the past,” said Eason Jordan. The action is down on the floor and that is where the news should originate. So say the minds at CNN, who are in agreement on this shift.

I found them less in agreement—in fact, out of alignment—on a more immediate matter of politics and news judgment this week. It’s been in the papers.

“The planners of the Republican National Convention have crafted a minute-by-minute lineup they hope will keep viewers tuned in,” wrote Elizabeth Jensen of the Los Angeles Times. “But nothing they do can guarantee that TV networks won’t cut to a split screen with convention speakers on one side and protesters in the streets of New York on the other.”

The split screen is a metaphor for running with two big stories— where one is trying to “talk” to the other. (See my earlier post on it.) I asked Eason Jordan, Princell Hair and Sam Feist about this. Jordan, the senior executive of the three, said to me: “We’re covering this event a little differently than we did in Boston because outside the hall is where a lot of the action is.” He continued:

And so we have far greater resources outside the hall than we did in Boston where it was relatively quiet. Here, anything can happen. From just major protests, anarchists unleashing some chaos. Even god forbid some sort of terrorist incident. The prospects of that happening here we think are much greater than they were in Boston.

In Jordan’s view, the RNC is a different news environment than the DNC was. The convention hasn’t changed size. But here the city is a bigger surrounding story, and there are many more actors involved in convention week in New York City. “Here, anything can happen.”

News judgment that carried the day during the DNC in Boston may simply not apply to the RNC in New York. That is the implication in Jordan’s remarks. A “split screen” moment is thinkable because street protests and other actions compete with the convention in defining the story the network should be telling.

Princell Hair, executive vice president, and Sam Feist, senior executive producer for political coverage, seemed to be thinking less about the coverage and more about the criticism they might have to contend with. This is from Jensen’s account in the Los Angeles Times:

In the past, the Republicans haven’t been shy about demanding they be treated equally to the Democrats on TV. In July 2000, then-Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson sent network news chiefs a letter demanding they air “not a minute more” of the Democratic gathering than they had of the Republicans, which were held first that year.

Jordan talked about the CNN troops outside the Garden. Princell Hair said, “The bulk of our folks are here at the Garden because that’s where the story is.” There’s a protest angle out there, and it deserves coverage, he said. “But we have to be smart about the decisions we make with regard to events happening outside.”

I asked him: Have you thought about a situation where you might wind up cutting away from the RNC because other things were going on? “Absolutely,” he said. But CNN had to show caution. “We have to give the Republicans their due.” And that was said with some passion.

“In Boston most of our coverage was inside the hall,” said Sam Feist. And so it will be in New York, he predicted—for the story is inside the hall. Of course CNN is ready to cover the protests “a little or a lot, it depends on the size of the protests, it frankly depends on whether any protests turn violent, which they haven’t so far… and obviously whether or not the protests disrupt the convention.”

I said to Feist: “The protests disrupt the convention if they disrupt the televising of the convention— isn’t that so?”

He answered: “I don’t see that the protests have disrupted the televising of the convention and I don’t see that happening.” New York and Boston are parallel events, they will get equal coverage. There was nothing to puzzle over, even with the signs of a counter convention on the streets of New York. We cover the news, Sam reasoned. If the protests make news, we’ll cover that.

Have you had breakfast?

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Previous convention posts:

The Convention in Section View, Aug. 26

From a Small Circular Stage in a Sea of Thousands, Aug. 27

RNC Drops the Battleship-Style Stage; Goes Lighter, More Flexible, Aug. 30

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 31, 2004 2:15 AM