Ted Johnson, a political reporter for Variety, walked up the steps of the iconic bright red C-SPAN school bus parked on the floor of the national cable TV convention. He just wanted to say hi.
And why not? After all, if you’re a political journalist, the same just-the-facts network that’s long inspired “Saturday Night Live” skits is very much a key part of your reporting arsenal.
Now, financial necessity appears to be the mother of C-SPAN-bred invention, all probably to the enhanced benefit of reporters and politics junkies gearing up for the 2016 presidential campaign.
And it may be particularly true for the large number of reporters whose outlets can’t afford to have them on the road for appreciable, if even any, time due to budget cuts.
The new approach is C-SPAN’s way of staying atop most every upcoming twist and turn in a long campaign.
“We have a limited budget so had to figure out how to do unique programming and still cover what people expect on C-SPAN,” said Steve Scully, who sat on the bus and explained the changed landscape to me. Scully is a longtime C-SPAN stalwart who doubles both as a well-known TV and radio host and the executive overseeing all its politics coverage.
To that end, Scully approached the major TV news networks and broached the subject of collaboration with what can be “the same announcements, major policy speeches and events. How can we pool resources?”
“Four, eight or 12 years ago, we’d go to a candidate announcement and there were multiple trucks and transmission paths to get that announcement back to our respective networks.”
Now there will definitely be fewer at some due to ongoing deals between C-SPAN and NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, CNN and Bloomberg News to share operating costs at some events. It’s not complicated; they are simply talking to one another discreetly about which events each is interested in covering during an upcoming time period and then seeing what efficiencies seem reasonable.
“Everybody else is in the same boat,” Scully said. “We have limited budgets and campaigns are expensive expert as a two-year-long process becomes more costly.”
This week provides an example of the changes playing out.
Republican retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson announced his candidacy in Detroit, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee did likewise in Hope, Ark. On Saturday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush delivers the commencement address at Liberty University in Virginia, while a conservative gathering, the South Carolina Freedom Summit, also takes place that day.
In each instance, C-SPAN is partnering with somebody else to cut costs. In Detroit, it was with CBS and in Hope it was with ABC. The weekend partnership in South Carolina will be with Bloomberg News, while coverage of Bush at Liberty will be shared with CNN.
So, for example, Scully will provide the primary crew in South Carolina but Bloomberg will handle the transmission, namely feeding it back live. That cuts his expenses in roughly half with the cost of a satellite transmission truck handled by Bloomberg.
So if C-SPAN’s costs can range from $6,000 to $10,000 for some events, it will now attempt to cut those roughly by 50 percent. Transmission trucks alone can be about $3,500 a pop.
“People want to see things live now,” he said, pointing to his network’s website which was promoting British elections Thursday and the South Carolina gathering on Saturday. “We have to respond to the needs of our viewers in a digital age.”
For sure, the networks now routinely seem to have new technological competitors emerging every few months. For example, a reporter at any of this week’s events can use Twitter’s Periscope App and broadcast herself.
But it seems indisputable that reliance on the warhorses of political coverage will remain, especially as there’s more pressure to be everywhere live and a large group of political reporters can’t afford to be on the scene. That’s complicated by what could be, at least on the GOP side, a sprawling group of candidates who may be in multiple places some days.
That puts more pressure to get places, especially as that field expands. It’s an indirect reminder of how, not that long ago, C-SPAN might cover an event on a Thursday or Friday and process and FedEx the tape back to its headquarters and air the event on a Sunday.
“And if Hillary (Clinton) is somewhere, we’re no longer just covering her for TV,” said Scully, sitting inside the C-SPAN us and looking at a variety of monitors.
“We’re covering her for the web and radio. And since our goal is to provide as much content as possible for everyone, this allows us to get the programming people expect without blowing our budget even before the conventions next (2016) summer.”
For sure, the entire matter will breed its own complexity, in part out of institutional ego.
There have been other attempts at substantive sharing among, for example, local TV outlets in some markets that have not worked out as everybody ditched pooled coverage and went their own ways.
There is also the reality that TV images are still not a substitute for actually being in a room, parking lot or somewhere else with a newsmaker.
They may not capture the difference between how that newsmaker’s comments appear on TV and how they actually play in that room.
It was the case when Mitt Romney met with diners at a Tampa, Fla. coffee house in 2011 as he was seeking the GOP nomination. There, he declared, “I should tell my story,” Mr. Romney said. “I’m also unemployed.”
On TV, it came off to some as head turning, namely a rich guy straining to sound populist. But that wasn’t quite the case inside the coffee house, according to some who were there. People weren’t offended.
It’s that sort of context that can be lost, regardless of how much some media messengers now collaborate in bringing us images.
It’s why there’s still no real substitute for reporters being on the actual scene.