To a greater degree in this election cycle than last, the major party
conventions will be more scripted than spontaneous, aiming to deliver
suspense via showmanship rather than anything truly unexpected. And with
the broadcast networks devoting just three primetime hours to each
gathering, convention producers face many of the same challenges of
showbiz kudocasts, most notably, how to make a heavily formatted event
relevant in the digital age.
Most home viewers will still tune in via traditional broadcasts, but the
trick to keep them watching may be less one of winning them over with
ideas than drawing them in with flash.
Rather than tap a showbiz vet
to produce the Aug. 27-30 convention in Tampa, Fla., that will nominate
Mitt Romney, Republicans went in another direction: They picked Phil
Alongi, a media consultant who spent three decades at NBC News producing
or overseeing big events like the funeral of Ronald Reagan, the
election of Pope Benedict and the Olympics — as well as conventions
of both parties going back to 1984.
The tropical storm bearing
down on the Gulf Coast only added to the typical producers headaches, as
convention officials try to lock down a schedule as much in advance as
they can. It already forced major changes to the schedule, forcing them to cancel Monday's events and fold them in to the convention's remaining days.
Alongi says he approached the Tampa convention as a news
event, but one that will have to engage not just broadcasters but a
broader mix of bloggers and social networks. "We hope with a little more
buzz, we will get more people to watch," he says.
understands that modern conventions face a home audience with a shorter
attention span and a greater number of channels armed with alternative
programming. "Viewers are very fast with their (remote control)
fingers," he says. "I want them to say, 'That is sort of cool,' and stay
with us. Visually, I want to make sure that (we have) something that
will keep your interest."
Long gone is the fortress-like podium
jutting out above a moat of delegates; in its place is a stage with
steps reaching down into the audience. Last week, the Republican
National Committee unveiled the convention set, a spatial homage to
Frank Lloyd Wright in geometry and hue, intended to convey warmth and
openness, with 13 giant LED screens to provide an elaborate display of
video storytelling. The cherry on top is a canopy of screens that convey
the impression of a ceiling above a warm living room. Control Freak
Systems, which has been responsible for the graphics display for
concerts featuring Jay-Z, Journey and Kenny Chesney, is in charge of the
video in Tampa.
Russ Schriefer, senior adviser to the Romney
campaign, describes the screens as "another character in the play."
Multiple images allow for greater storytelling, with, for example, shots
of delegates on the convention floor mixing with video of a factory
floor or a town hall to help contextualize a speaker's message. Even a
Twitter or Facebook post could show up onscreen, during breaks between
speakers, as a way to interact with the audience outside the hall, he
A mistake of conventions past, Schriefer notes, is to stack
too many speeches in a row. Republican Convention producers aim to use
video and other elements to keep things moving "in a way that keeps it
Even if Republicans seem a rare breed among
entertainers, there will be celebrities in the mix. Janine Turner, the
star of "Northern Exposure," who is now a conservative talkradio host,
has a speaking slot; and the Oak Ridge Boys will kick off the opening
night with the National Anthem. A house band led by G.E. Smith,
guitarist for Hall & Oates and former musical director of "Saturday
Night Live," will be visible on one of two entertainment stages, unlike
past conventions where the musicians have been hidden behind camera