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.
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.
Alongi 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 says.
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 interesting.”
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 stands.
As much as he approaches the convention as a news event, Alongi admits that the Grammy Awards, a show that has proven its ability to hold viewer interest with shifting musical acts and elaborate stage work, is “sort of an inspiration.” This past year, ratings were higher for the Grammys than the Oscars.
But just as the Academy Awards broadcast is bound by a preponderance of categories and winners’ remarks that don’t allow it to stray too radically from the past so too is the climax of party conventions preordained: The crescendo is still the standard-bearer’s speech.
That’s not to say dramatic overhauls haven’t been weighed. Politico reported in a recent ebook that the Obama campaign considered holding its convention in four different cities on separate nights this year, but the idea proved to be a logistical nightmare and was abandoned. As in 2008, the final night of the Democratic convention — including President Obama’s acceptance speech — will be held in a stadium.
Likewise, Alongi says he wanted to present elements that were outside the box, but he still embraces tradition to a degree. “Absolutely there will be a balloon drop,” he says, along with a lectern for speeches; the roll call of states; and even the presence of a gavel to settle down delegates.
It took quite a few cycles for political parties plotting their conventions to really respond to the television age. It was, after all, in 1972 that George McGovern infamously delivered his acceptance speech in the wee hours of the morning. With the parties now adept at programming for what generally is a nightly hour in broadcast primetime, the next challenge has been to use it for maximum impact.
It will be up to the RNC and the Romney campaign to determine how they deliver their message to provide the biggest convention bounce. Alongi recites a journalist’s nonpartisan aim for his production. “My goal is to engage people,” he says. “I feel that people should be involved, that they should care, and that they know that every vote counts.”
Still, the producer undoubtedly will be partial to one person on the stage: Phil Alongi, singing the National Anthem on the convention’s second day. It’s his son, an opera tenor who also sang at the RNC in 2008.