What you don't see: The rich-looking, chocolate-dark wood fronting the stage and the podium is actually cheap beige plywood, ingeniously painted. The marble panels and accents above and around the stage? Actually painted backlit plastic.
It's not all illusion and stagecraft at the Democratic National Convention. But there's certainly plenty to go around.
A year in the planning and production, the Democrats' big bash is unfolding with the rhythms and flourishes of a huge Broadway musical. There's a vast high-tech set built by a Hollywood designer, a production and stage crew of 450, a 15-piece orchestra, and a script that will, in two days, reach a predestined climax.
As obvious as it sounds, all the effort has little to do with the nearly 15,000 journalists in attendance or even the 5,672 delegates and alternates, and everything to do with what the eye follows on a TV screen.
Faced with steadily declining audiences and limited network television exposure, the Democrats are trying to thread the needle. They want a solemn, time-honored ritual of the democratic process, but they also want the kind of dazzle that jacks up Nielsen ratings. The entire production -- indeed the entire convention -- is all geared to one thing: gaining the most attention for, and presenting in the most favorable light possible, the Democratic ticket of Sens. John F. Kerry and John Edwards.
"A convention is a unique event," acknowledges Rod O'Connor, 34, the soft-spoken overseer of the Democrats' bash. "It's a news event and a political event, but it also has [produced] elements. We have to walk a fine line between creating a compelling event that engages people and one that still tells the story of this election."
To keep what is essentially a series of speeches from getting stale, the party is counting on the visual appeal of its multimillion-dollar stage, which spans almost the length of FleetCenter's floor. The Democrats had used the same stage designer -- and the same basic stage setup -- for the past four conventions. O'Connor felt the party needed a pick-me-up. To that end, he hired Steve Bass, a noted designer of sets for television, including the stage for the Grammy Awards.
Bass's design includes not one but two podiums, which enables organizers to set up musical acts and other elements without down time. It includes seats behind the podium, so that speakers are in front of a human backdrop. Plasma TVs add further visual appeal. The whole thing is topped by a stadium-style display screen, that at 90 feet wide is the largest ever used at a convention.
The screens have been such a telegenic attraction that the Democratic National Committee decided to leave them on overnight so that broadcasters located in the hall could use them as a backdrop for their late-night and early-morning programs. Party officials say this recognizes a modern reality of conventions -- that television coverage consists more of correspondents, anchorpeople and interview guests talking about the convention than of the official events themselves.
O'Connor's other key hire was the convention's executive producer, Don Mischer, a multiple Emmy Award-winning TV director and producer who most produced the torch-lighting ceremony at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta featuring Muhammad Ali. Mischer is charged with overseeing all of the DNC's made-for-TV elements, from the daily parade of speeches to the testimonials that play at various times on the jumbo screen (Democrats aren't alone in leaning on showbiz know-how; next month's Republican convention in New York will be produced by David Nash, who has staged Christmas and Easter shows starring the Rockettes).
Mischer's chief innovation at this convention has been his use of live satellite feeds of ordinary Democrats from locations across the country. But his biggest challenge may be keeping the delegates in the hot, packed hall energized between speeches. Because they don't control the cameras operated by the cable and broadcast networks, DNC officials have been wary of spontaneous shots of delegates nodding off. So Mischer has tried to limit moments of inaction, and blasts the hall with baby-boomer oldies ("We Are Family," "Proud Mary," "Everyday People") to keep the audience pepped up when not much is happening.
The party has also attempted to reach out to young people and audiences that had been more or less overlooked before. Among other musical acts, the hip-hop group Black Eyed Peas is scheduled to perform. The DNC "partnered," as O'Connor put it, with MTV, co-sponsoring a contest with the network to find a college-age speaker who will appear in prime time at the convention and will be the subject of an MTV documentary. It has coaxed such networks as BET and Univision into setting up broadcast booths in the hall and has let "Daily Show" comedian Jon Stewart roam at will during the proceedings ("He wanted to come in 2000," O'Connor reports, "and we said no. I don't know why.") In all, DNC officials are hoping that the party's message comes through, even with the most important broadcasters -- CBS, ABC and NBC -- providing just three hours a week of coverage, a record-low amount.
They're also counting on a rule of thumb familiar to any performer since the days of vaudeville: Don't let the stage effects distract from the stage performance. "This isn't a rock concert," says one adviser, a veteran of seven conventions. "The pyrotechnics shouldn't take away from what we're trying to say each night."
So far, so good, O'Connor says after opening night. "You never know exactly how it's all going to work until 25 or 30 thousand people come into the building," he said. "With something this big, there will always be minor adjustments here and there. But by and large, we think it's working."