The Republican Party is preparing the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul for their 39th national convention.
By Ken Freed
Correspondent, TV Technology
When the Committee On Arrangements for the 2008 Republican National Convention took over the Xcel Energy Center in Minneapolis-Saint Paul on July 21, they kicked off six weeks of intense work preparing the facility for the 39th Republican convention on September 1-4, 2008. This is the first national political convention in Minnesota since 1892, when the Republicans nominated Benjamin Harrison.
The 20,000-seat Xcel arena with four seating levels, a state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2000, needs to accommodate 30,000 delegates, party officials, volunteers, and guests plus 15,000 members of the media. Fortunately, much of the media operations will occupy 475,000 square feet of workspace in the adjoining Saint Paul RiverCentre convention center and The Legendary Roy Wilkins Auditorium.
One of the first tasks for the works crews, said Gordon Pennoyer, deputy director of media operations for the Committee On Arrangements (COA), is removing about 3,000 seats for the main convention podium and assorted television networks anchor or camera positions.
The Xcel Center already contains the Al Shaver Press Box on the fifth level along with 62 suite on that level and another dozen on the concourse level, of which 23 are being converted for use as media studios. Another nine media suites are being fabricated on the concourse level.
Crews are taking out seats in front of all these media suites, Pennoyer said, so studios can extend out and down, allowing reporters to do interviews and stand-ups with the convention floor behind them.
Additional chairs are being removed at selected sites around the hall for about 30 camera positions being created amid the seating and on the arena floor, Pennoyer noted. Most camera positions will be “unilateral,” assigned to specific media operations, and the remainder will be available on a per-use basis through the COA.
A secondary floor is being installed above the existing cement floor to provide space for cabling. About six miles of phone and Internet cables are being installed throughout the facility for a total of 4,500 digital and analog lines. This does do not include any of the cabling that media networks are installing themselves.
Some of the wiring will be hidden, such as the existing data lines that connect to the 360-degree, full-color LED ribbon board signage. Some of the cabling may pass through the four spacious concourses, 70 feet in width, that permit open sightlines across the arena.
Some of this installed cabling will support the skyboxes and anchor suites of the five principal HD pool members, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and CNN. The plans are all confirmed, according to pool producer Margaret Lehrman, the senior producer for coverage and special events at NBC News in Washington, DC.
In addition the HD pool members, Lehrman said, the pool has four subscribers so far, including C-SPAN and NPR. She’s received inquiries from a half dozen others, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which wants to put video on its newspaper website.
“We go up with pictures each day a half hour before the opening gavel,” Lehrman said, “and we stay up with pictures a half hour after everything ends for the day. We’ll be providing up to 30 hours of programming overall.”
The 14 cabled and two RF pool cameras from Game Creek Video’s production truck will cover the entire convention floor and provide exclusive behind-the-scenes footage. Game Creek’s new Northstar HD truck will be parked in the loading dock, the normal location of production trucks for sporting events.
Tandberg encoders at the Xcel Center will multiplex the signal over a 270 Mb Vyvx circuit to NBC News in New York, which will distribute the feed by satellite. The pool feed also will be uplinked to New York for the Xcel Center as a backup.
The pool feed will include a live outside of the Xcel Center transmitted over the Internet by Streambox to NBC News in Washington, DC. “The broadcast-quality beauty shot will be useful for cutaways and interstitials,” Lehrman said, “so we’re not concerned about the 3.5-second latency from using the Internet.”
For those not subscribing to the expensive HD pool feed, the COA is providing its own SD feed for $500, Pennoyer said, which will include original footage, some video from the HD pool, a Spanish translation, and a closed captioned version. “We’ve had requests from an array of local and independents stations as well as from newspapers and periodicals that stream video on their websites. It’s up to the subscribers to convert our SD feed into whatever format works for them.”
To reduce the level of frequency coordination needed for the pool feed, Lehrman said, the crew members mostly will communicate with cellphones. “We’ll rent cellphones locally, so they all have the same area code, because that will let us do group calling that links everyone on the line together.
All RF frequency coordination goes through the SBE’s Political Conventions Communications Committee (PolComm2008), chaired by broadcast consultant Louis Libin at Broad-Comm in Woodmere, NY.
Coordinating frequencies above 1 GHz at the RNC is the Minnesota state frequency coordinator, Marc Majerus, the assistant chief engineer at Fox affiliate KMSP-TV9 in St Paul.
Frequencies below 1 GHz are being coordinated by Howard Fine, VP of broadcast operations for the Pacific Television Center in Los Angeles.
Libin, Majerus and Fine is making sure all RF equipment is assigned a frequency prior to the Republican convention. Trained volunteers will inspect, tag and monitor every piece of RF gear brought onto the site.
Libin said he also looking forward to FCC support for field tests of low-power wireless microphones and other devices operating in the “white space” between television channels. “These tests would be conducted only during off-peak periods during the conventions,” he promised, “so there would be no risk of interference with convention coverage in prime time. The convention offers an ideal opportunity to test the limits of what the white space can handle.”
Pennoyer anticipates the facility to be a constant “hotbed of media activity” during the convention. The U.S. morning shows starting production at 4 AM and there’s a 15-hour time difference between St. Paul and Tokyo. “We expect the RiverCentre and Wilkins media workspaces be in use 24/7,” Pennoyer said, “and that will be convenient because they are within the same security perimeter as the Xcel Center, making it easy to move between the venues.”
Spaces within the three venues have already been assigned, he reported, and there is no production space set aside for independent media. However, there will be open areas with free internet connections for journalists to plug in their laptops to edit their video stories or write their blogs.
Not everyone will be indoors, however. ABC and Fox will be based in production trucks outside in the parking lots.
Fox News plans 21 hours of RNC coverage though almost every program on their weekday schedule, starting at 8 AM with Fox and Friends, plus special convention coverage anchored by Britt Hume, said Jeff Hark, senior director of production for Fox News in New York. An ongoing “Strategy Room” discussion with rotating anchors and guests will offer regular commentary segments.
Video and audio from skybox and broadcast platform to the right of the main podium will feed the “Fox News Experience” in the parking lot, Hark said. The outdoor compound will be built around the new CorPlex Iridium HD production truck, contracted through Alliance Productions.
The Fox tent will be next to the walkway used by delegates to enter the facility, Hark said, “We will invite the delegates to walk though to see us at work and leave with some Fox News trinkets.”
Fox will shoot at 720p for ATSC in the U.S. and DVB-T2 for the rest of the world, Hark said, “Fox Sports chose 720p, and that format was adopted by Fox News.”
Fox also plans to distribute disposable video cameras to delegates on the floor, Hark said. “They will shoot whatever they like, return the cameras to us, and that footage will add a grassroots feel to our convention coverage that’s not been seen in the past.”
Originally published in TV Technology on 8/20/08. (c) 2008 by Ken Judah Freed