“At a regular convention, audience reaction is a huge part of the speeches,” Andrew Binns, the event’s chief operating officer, explained. “We needed a way to do that technologically and virtually.”
Faced with a complex problem, Democrats decided to go big, aiming for a solution that has more in common with Netflix, Facebook Live and the cheering fan screens courtside in Orlando’s NBA bubble than the C-Span-style cattle call typical of past national party gatherings.
Over four nights starting Monday, a behind-the-scenes crew of about 400 with operation centers in New York, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Wilmington, Del., plans to broadcast to the nation hundreds of live video feeds from living rooms, national monuments and stages around the country, according to interviews with three people involved in planning the event.
That includes dozens of speakers who have been mailed video-production kits, with basic equipment such as microphones, lighting and advanced routers, so they can produce and transmit their own shots. Other homebound delegates will be dialed in to quick feeds of the live speeches, so their real-time reactions can be broadcast to the country as if they were in the same room as the speakers.
In two-hour nightly chunks, only one hour of which the broadcast networks have vowed to air, the live footage will be mixed in real time with a roughly equal share of prerecorded performances, mini-documentaries and speeches. Artists such as Billie Eilish, Prince Royce and the band formerly known as the Dixie Chicks — now simply the Chicks — have already filed video of their acts. Voters picked to excite key demographic targets — a Florida paramedic who emigrated from Mexico City and a former Trump voter from Pennsylvania, for example — have also cut video testimonials.
For a typically antiquated and long-winded event, the remade unconventional convention could set a new standard for national political gatherings, which have evolved since the 1960s from their roots as actual smoke-filled rooms where presidents were picked to suspenseless televised spectacles that even partisans struggled to justify.
The new circus could also flop, especially if the broadcast and cable networks have their on-air talent talk over all of the carefully prepared set pieces and less-partisan viewers decide to dismiss the spectacle as an overlong propaganda film. In addition to ubiquitous online streaming options, broadcast networks are expected to give the event the 10 p.m. hour for each of the nights, while the cable networks will be on the air for hours before and after the events. But how much of the feed is rebroadcast directly remains an open question.
“This is not a question of people being interested or people watching. I think it is a question of what gets through the filter,” said Erik Smith, a Democratic consultant who helped organize the past three conventions but is not involved in this one. “The real undecided swing voters are typically the ones finding it on network television.”
The event’s producer since 1992, Ricky Kirshner, promises that, if nothing else, it will not be predictable television, because far more has been left to chance than other coronavirus-era, social-media-driven specials, such as May’s “Graduate Together” or the “One World: Together at Home” broadcast in April. Even the 2020 NFL Draft, a live television show that roped together reaction shots from more than 100 home-recording kits, did not try to juggle as many balls at once.
Kirshner has been around long enough to know that conventions tend to be remembered for what was not planned, such as Al Gore’s forceful kiss of his wife, Tipper, at the Democratic gathering in 2000 or actor Clint Eastwood’s bizarre conversation with an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention.
“Anything can happen. It is not scripted, I can tell you that,” said Kirshner, a veteran of staging Super Bowl halftime shows, the Tony Awards and Kennedy Center Honors. “There is so much live in this show.”
To capture any potentially viral programmed or unexpected moments, the show’s producers plan to clip and post segments of the event on social media in near-real time, so supporters can share segments from the beginning of a speech before it’s even over. The length of a typical speech, about 10 minutes in a normal year, has also been brought down to a couple of minutes or less for many speakers — a nod to changing media-consumption trends and an attempt to speed up the proceedings.
Biden will give a longer address Thursday night, when he accepts the Democratic presidential nomination from his hometown of Wilmington. His running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), will speak from the same location on Wednesday, after a speech by former president Barack Obama.
“In total, we are 16 hours shorter than a typical convention,” said Stephanie Cutter, a veteran Democratic operative who has been shaping the program and negotiating coverage with broadcast and cable networks. “We really have to hit our mark in those two hours a night and use every potential platform to get it out.”
The forced brevity, though enraging to Democratic officials who won’t get a chance to speak or who will only have a minute or two, could also play well to the evolving technological landscape where targeted voters spend their time.
“If you look at how TikTok and Snapchat are structured, it is all 15-second to 30-second bites,” said Hugh Evans, the co-founder and chief executive of Global Citizen who organized the “Together at Home” broadcast by compiling short musical performances. “The nature of consumption has changed. You are not going to sit and watch a Saturday night movie. You are going to consume content all day long.”
Even if they can retain viewership, planners for this year face another challenge in trying to figure out how to replicate the secondary purpose of the event, which is to motivate and organize die-hard supporters for the 75-day sprint to Election Day once it ends. The plans call for both the expected — state-based virtual watch parties — and the gimmicky, with live broadcasts at a portion of the roughly 300 drive-in movie theaters still left in the country.
The liberation from a single dais and microphone has allowed for core features of the event to be reinvented. The Tuesday keynote speech, rather than elevating a solo political star such as Obama in 2004, will be given over to a montage of 18 young Democratic politicians across the country.
The roll-call vote on Tuesday, sometimes an hours-long ordeal of chaotic floor speeches and home-state braggadocio, has been redesigned as a 30-minute, lightning-quick tour of all 57 states and territories with delegates, some of whom will be broadcasting live.
How Republicans respond in their convention a week later is still very much an open question, as the incumbent party rushes to complete its plans. Though Democrats had to scramble in the last month after abandoning Milwaukee as the central convention hub because of coronavirus concerns, they had already been preparing since the spring for a largely virtual option.
Republicans, meanwhile, have a far more extensive online video operation, with daily Trump streaming programming, but have until recently been dead set on finding a way to stage a mass in-person event. Current Trump plans involve speeches in the Washington area, including a possible address from the president at the White House, interspersed with video content produced by former campaign manager Brad Parscale.
Democrats have so far declined to reveal all of the details of how they will try to spice up their event. There is, organizers say, a plan to find some way to re-create the balloon drop, though they declined to disclose it days before Biden formally accepts the nomination.
Exactly how the reaction shots from delegates are worked into the convention are also unclear, though Kirshner dismissed the notion that it would be just a picture-in-picture production, like some sort of a national Zoom call.
“We have screens in some of the rooms, in Milwaukee, in L.A. and in Delaware,” Kirshner said of the convention planning. The screens can be used to show home audience reactions. Just how well they work won’t be known for sure until it happens.