Cable talkers’ latest status symbol: A studio at home


James Carville, live from his house. CNN screengrab. (CNN)
April 8, 2012

Of the many categories of waste in American politics, consider the resources that go into cable-TV live shots. Thousands of barrels of fossil fuel are expended hauling a person to where the cameras are or a camera to where the person is.

James Carville and Mary Matalin are examples of an apparently better way. A new cable-news luxury allows them to comment, live on CNN, whether the topic is exploding oil rigs or imploding candidacies, without ever leaving the splendor of their New Orleans homestead.

“We’d have to hire a crew in our Gulf Coast bureau every time,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “These things take a lot of time and advance planning. It’s not something you can do on the spur of the moment.” Now he can, with the flip of a switch.

For professional political talkers, a cable-news contract used to be the ultimate. The residuals were limousine rides, paychecks, e-mails from names not heard from since homeroom. But D.C. greenrooms can feel stifling — a windowless, schmooze-or-be-schmoozed cell.

Sure, the power schlep is still a fun ride for some, but what if you could have the power without the schlep? So far, half a dozen on-air commentators are getting the upgrade of in-home cameras. This is just the beginning.

In the Carville-Matalin house, CNN’s team of techies mounted a smallish camera — called a Cisco link — that gets steered and focused by engineers in D.C. or Atlanta or Hong Kong or whichever CNN nerve center has booked either half of the power couple.

“This is an option that turns out to be cost-effective and also smart for the contributor and the network,” Feist said.

It’s also awesome, and “inexpressibly gratifying,” Matalin said in an e-mail. Then she found some words to express it: “For us personally, the system allows us to be available when CNN needs us without having to miss out on our kid’s many happenings.” On that day, for example, she had her daughter Matty’s induction into the National Honor Society to attend. And on that weekend, she had a school dance to chaperone. The ­work-family balance, thus, can finally teeter in the family direction.

“It eliminates travel time, set-up time and all the rigmarole that attends any segment, no matter how short,” she wrote. “Bottom line: I love love love Cisco.”

The opposites-attract back ­story of the Democrat and Republican strategists is seen here and there in their backdrop. His-and-her items include a speckled, white end table (Mary) and an autographed LSU football helmet (James). Bookshelves are stocked and curtains are drawn in their pundit cave. In many ways, it’s like the typical man cave, where a suburban dad could dial in rants to WFAN, except now the sport is politics and the analysis is more polite.

* * *

Some pundits have a camera peering into a Harvard office (CNN’s David Gergen) or Philly radio studio (MSNBC’s Michael Smerconish). That’s too formal, with none of the same pundit-to-public intimacy — or pundit-to-pundit status differentials. When ranking perks, it’s only luxurious if the cameras allow the commentator to maintain proximity to a patch of green. And a bed. And a fridge — and not the green-room mini-fridge that holds all the diet Dr Peppers.

Cisco newcomer Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary, recently welcomed a CNN-paid crew to his house in Westchester County, N.Y. “Considering they invaded my property to build a studio, it was a smallish invasion with smallish equipment,” he said. In their wake, they left a little camera that “hibernates into one position,” some glaring lights, and a white X made of tape on the floor — his mark to stay in frame.

There are no Land-of-Oz pamperers on hand to bring the wizardry to life. “I have to figure out how to put in an earpiece, which is harder than it should be,” Fleischer said. “I have to figure out how to put a mike on my lapel, which is harder than it should be.” If help is required, Fleischer has made do with any available extra hand. “My seven-year-old daughter likes to put on the powder so my head doesn’t shine.” She needs to accomplish this early in the evening, he said, since a spot on “Anderson Cooper 360” is past her bedtime.

* * *

MSNBC just provided a camera to Steve Schmidt, Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign manager, and Schmidt’s daughter is also learning how to apply the powder. Schmidt is finding that he can keep a connection to the Beltway that doesn’t interfere with a connection to the great outdoors — not unlike his on-again antagonist, Sarah Palin.

From the banks of Lake Lucille, Palin can digitally commune with Greta Van Susteren or Sean Hannity or any other Fox News host who books her. When the former Alaska governor was taping her reality show, the TLC cameras recorded the Fox News cameras recording her, thus crossing a new threshold.

A Fox News spokeswoman declined to discuss the financial arrangement, but unlike the instruments that MSNBC and CNN install, the Palin-cams are satellite-linked and high-definition — and thus, have a nyah-nyah factor.

Schmidt is just happy not to be stuck in a Town Car’s back seat all the time. “Where I live, I have to go over a 9,000-foot mountain just to get to a TV studio. It’s not passable when it snows,” Schmidt said from his newly camera-equipped house on the Nevada side of the Lake Tahoe region. “There’s definitely been instances where you can be in from the ski hill and out of snowsuits and into a jacket and tie and on a show within an hour.”

If Palin’s live shots show mountains and a lake, Schmidt’s spare surroundings have only a few framed items in view: a prized letter from a V.I.P., his wife’s commission as a naval officer, the vote sheets that Vice President Dick Cheney used in the two Supreme Court confirmations that Schmidt helped make happen.

If one has to suffer the intrusions of “The Truman Show,” take control of self-image with talking points and an “ego wall.”

* * *

The only commotion near Schmidt in his current habitat comes from kids and pets, which is in keeping with punditry’s pioneer in high-tech telecommuting.

A few decades ago, Cokie Roberts allowed NPR to install a micro­phone in her husband’s study, just off their bedroom. Many a Monday since then, she has gone on air at 6:15 a.m., often still in her nightgown, broadcasting her view from Bethesda. It’s not very far from NPR’s HQ, but still.

Years ago, her basset hound, Abner, took to baying at exactly the wrong time. She tried barricades and closed doors to keep him a safe distance from the live microphone but then Abner checkmated by barking in the room below. “The dog was determined to be on the radio,” she recalled. (NPR did, in fact, capi­tal­ize on the Abner anecdote during a pledge drive.)

Then there was the time that Linda Wertheimer, Roberts’s NPR colleague, overnighted at the Roberts residence for the sole purpose of quieting a ready-to-squeal infant grand-daughter during the live takes. It’s all very intimate, but within limits. “I must say, I would not like a camera,” Roberts said. “It would not be a pretty picture.”

And as with all technology, there’s that status thrill of getting a V.I.P. perk before anyone else. After all, who cares about getting comforts-of-home niceties at the office, when you can have the actual comforts of home? But when there’s a give, there’s always a little take.

“The minus is,” Roberts explained, “they can always find you.”

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