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CNN Tests a ‘Drive-In’ Town Hall With Joe Biden

cnn-drive-in-town-hall
Courtesy of CNN/Keith Thornhill

CNN is planning a town-hall event with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden tonight that is so complex and ornate viewers may mistake it for something entirely different.

“It’s going to be like ‘American Graffiti,” says Mark Preston, CNN’s vice president of political and special event programming, in an interview.

So-called “town halls” have grown in popularity among the nation’s TV-news outlets in recent years, part of a bid to inject the voices of average citizens into big news cycles. The advent of the coronavirus pandemic makes the logistics of such things more difficult. No candidate can really get too close to a questioner, after all, and who wants to sit in an enclosed space for a long period of time? CNN has struck upon an interesting alternative: When the AT&T-owned cable-news outlet begins broadcasting its event Thursday evening at 8 p.m. from PNC Field in Moosic, PA., Biden and moderator Anderson Cooper will be in front of an audience attending the proceedings in cars.

The scene will be an interesting one, but CNN staffers have been working furiously for days to get the venue ready for this evening’s broadcast. “We didn’t have this place locked until a week ago. That’s really stressful,” acknowledges Kate Lunger, CNN’s vice president of special events, in an interview.  “We locked it on Wednesday and Thursday last week, and started to load in on Friday. We had our gear being shipped from Atlanta before we knew where we were actually going to be.”

People who might have typically taken a seat in a small auditorium or amphitheater will instead attend the event in vehicles – and have to adhere to local safety and health regulations. Three people in a vehicle will be allowed entry to the venue. Four people will not. Biden and Cooper are expected to stay eight to ten feet apart at all times, and will be masked before they come out on stage. Attendees will have to wear masks on site, unless they are in front of a microphone where they are asking the candidate a question (and they can’t touch the equipment). People who want to make a query but don’t want to leave their vehicle will still be able to get an answer – courtesy of a boom mike CNN will have in operation.

“We are following all local guidelines about how many people can be together in an outside space,” says Lunger. “We have separate bathrooms for the audience, separate bathrooms for local vendors and separate bathrooms for the CNN staff who travel in.”

News executives will likely compare CNN’s efforts tonight to an ABC News town hall held earlier this week, during which anchor George Stephanopoulos moderated individual questions to President Donald Trump. That event was held at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which was largely empty, with individual questioners coming forward to a microphone and removing a mask to ask a question if they chose to do so.  ABC’s broadcast drew approximately 3.97 million viewers.

At CNN, producers have been considering options for such events for months. In March, as pandemic conditions worsened, CNN had to shift a Democratic primary debate between Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders to its Washington,D.C. studios from a planned location in Arizona. “We started to realize it wasn’t going to be business as usual,” says Lunger. “A few months ago, I literally sat down with my staff and our engineers and said, ‘If we are going to do something, which we hoped we could do in the next few months, how would we do it?'”

The answer? Slowly. CNN staffers have found procuring a site and supplies difficult in some instances. Many outdoor venues of the size necessary to accommodate the event are closed or already in use. Big tents that might provide shelter for equipment and staff are already being utilized by area restaurants eager to cultivate business by offering some form of outdoor dining. CNN executives have been scouring sites in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey for weeks.

The network’s special-events team has had to think fast on its feet in the past. In 2007, CNN utilized YouTube to help voters ask questions of Democratic and Republican candidates – something that was considered unorthodox at the time. Now the cable-news outlet needs to keep trying new things to keep up with the times, says Preston. “You are going to see these events evolve, just like we are seeing all of our lives evolve,” he says.