The divisive U.S. presidential election is finally over, following a long and loud campaign process—for the candidates, the public, and the media. CNN alone planned 18 months of related events in the lead-up. These included planning and executing events surrounding nine presidential debates in different cities, as well as 14 presidential town halls, two conventions, and four general-election debates. The scope covered special coverage and footprints planned around both CNN-owned events as well as buildouts at events like this summer's political conventions. The CNN team also simultaneously worked on the president’s historic trip to Cuba, White House Correspondents Dinner coverage, and, of course, countless non-election-related events.
CNN’s vice president of special events, Kate Lunger, said that it was nearly two full years ago that the company recognized it would need to amp up its event forces. “Planning for the presidential election began soon after the November 2014 midterm elections,” she said. “In January 2015, we met with a large group of CNN’s technical and production managers to outline what the next 24 months would look like in regards to special events. As we progressed through the campaign cycle, it became clear that initial projections were just the beginning.”
Events Around the Country
At one point, the team was planning five town halls and four presidential debates within a three-week period. “These events typically take weeks and often months to plan, four to seven days to set up on site, and hundreds of people to make it all happen,” she said. “But our team was able to turn around projects in record speed and uniquely short time frames.”
She cited the events’ diverse locations as one of the team’s toughest obstacles to overcome. “Working in multiple cities at the same time was one of our biggest challenges,” Lunger said. “We knew we were going to have multiple simultaneous events happening throughout the year, so we brought on a dedicated advance production manager responsible for beginning the initial setup phase of each project and then hopscotch[ing] to the next location.”
The key, she said, was to communicate all of the moving parts and coordinate with all of the relevant players: engineering, scenic, lighting, and more. She also noted the essential nature of the right strategic partners. “We found that one of the most important aspects in dealing with all of this movement is working hand in hand with our non-television entities and partners such as universities and theaters,“ she said. “With any debate or town hall throughout the campaign cycle, CNN would swarm in with a deluge of staff and time-sensitive needs. Over the last two years, we’ve met so many top-level professionals throughout the country—many of which sent such kinds notes wishing us luck on election-night coverage.”
”Each site and city brought with it its own set of logistical challenges to overcome, she said—and moving hundreds of people from site to site is a feat in itself. As well, Lunger said, “Security is different everywhere you go, and working the U.S. Secret Service adds a layer of complexities, with security sweeps ranging from two to 10 hours, setting up secure green rooms, and drop-off points.”
Those additional logistical layers necessitated creative solutions. “One standout event to me where I was tremendously proud of our special events team was our Republican presidential debate at the University of Miami in March,” Lunger said. “We did not have access to the site as early as we needed. Instead, we actually built a stage on wheels on one end of the site while the lighting grid was simultaneously being built on the other end, and then rolled it into place as the lighting truss was raised up.”
Several other logistical puzzles stand out in her memory. She said that for the first debate CNN hosted in September of last year, the team built a three-story scaffolding set inside the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. Air Force One served as the scenic backdrop for both the main and undercard debate with 17 Republican presidential candidates, and there was seating for more than 500 audience members. This process took 10 days to build and four to strike.
In addition, moving gear from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia required overnight load-out and shipping from city to city for next-day load-in.
But most recently, she points to the special coverage leading up to the company’s “Election Night in America" programming in Washington, for which CNN had a broadcast set with the White House behind it. She said, “We had to crane the set, lighting, and engineering gear up on to the roof of the building where the set was located because the elevators were too small for pieces to fit inside.”