CBS News’ Scott Pelley on ‘Transformative Development’ of Abandoning Sky Box for DNC Coverage

Scott Pelley DNC
Courtesy of CBS

UPDATED: PHILADELPHIA — It’s such a simple notion as to be downright radical: While every other major broadcaster at the Democratic National Convention is anchoring news reports from sky boxes high above the floor of the Wells Fargo Arena here, CBS has gone old school. The network of Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite and its current evening news anchor, Scott Pelley, is delivering the news from a booth right on the floor of the Wells Fargo Arena.

Pelley and the rest of the CBS team have been having a strong week, as Hillary Clinton prepares to accept the nomination as the first female presidential nominee of a major political party. “CBS Evening News” recently notched its best ratings in a decade, powered in good measure by its coverage of Campaign 2016.

Pelley, who turns 59 on Thursday, feels like the network’s roost on the floor of the convention is bringing viewers an immediacy unmatched by any of its television competitors.

“I am thrilled to be down on the floor instead of in a sky booth, where you are glassed in and removed from the action like you are watching from a submarine,” said the veteran newsman and “60 Minutes” correspondent. “We were live from the floor for everything. Norah O’Donnell and I were talking about how it felt to be in the room. People were in tears when Hillary went over the top for the nomination and other people marched out because they were so unhappy. We are reporters. We should not be observing people as if from another planet but, instead, elbow to elbow with them, interacting, and gauging what they are feeling. And down there on the floor you could feel the emotion, there was no question. It was visceral.”

Pelley described being just feet away on Tuesday, as Bernie Sanders stepped to the microphone in the Vermont delegation to pledge all the state’s delegates to his long-time rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton. “It was a real moment,” Pelley said. Pelley said the moment never would have been possible without CBS’s position right on the floor, just to the left of the podium.

The anchor praised CBS News President David Rhodes for coming up with the idea of floor-based reportage. “It turned out that he was exactly right and we are right in the moment,” said Pelley, who is covering his seventh convention. “When I was on the set last night I said to Rhodes that I never, ever want to go back to a sky box. This has been a transformative development for us!”

“I thought it would be too noisy or that the crowds would be too disruptive and I was not sure the angle for our cameras would work from down there,” said Pelley. “But our audio engineers worked everything out perfectly and the crowds have turned out to be curious and fun … not disruptive at all. The way the shot works, you see the podium right at my shoulder height … and it just has a very innovative look.”

Pelley praised former NBC News boss Steve Capus, now executive producer of rival CBS’s “Evening News,” for driving many of the innovations that have had CBS climbing in the ratings. “Steve brought in a new director, and made it tasteful and modern, but did it all gradually and it has been a beautiful change.”

“Steve is also just a really solid journalist when it comes to what we are going to cover and how we are going to cover it,” added Pelley, a classical music buff and workout fanatic. “He has a really good sense of what is important out there in the world.”

Capus has run the breadth of the TV News production employment cycle, starting as an intern and working his way up to producer, assignment editor, then show producer and, eventually, executive in charge of NBC’s landmark “Today Show.” “Now we get the benefit at CBS of having the most experienced news executive in all of television. You can’t imagine how lucky I am.”

Another watershed in the current election cycle for CBS has been the advent of a 24/7 streaming coverage via CBSN. The live video web feed takes political fanatics to events all day long from the convention city of Philadelphia. On Wednesday morning, for example, there was wall-to-wall coverage of Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s appearance before the Virginia convention delegation. Besides the live stream of the event, CBS offers pre and post-event commentary.

The streaming effort has been building audience steadily since its introduction, drawing a record 7.6 million streams during the Republican National Convention, higher than the previous big nights for CBSN, like the must-watch primary season debates, starring Donald Trump.

“During a week when viewers had many choices for live streaming video from the convention, we saw record demand for our wall-to-wall coverage and original reporting,” said Christy Tanner, senior vice president and general manager of CBS News Digital, in a prepared statement.

Nancy Lane, senior exec producer of CBS News Digital, said the growth was expected to continue at the Philadelphia convention, though numbers were not in as of Wednesday afternoon.