CNN's Bohrman Sees Tech Investment Payoff in Election Coverage

As in February's “Super Tuesday,” this week's round of presidential primaries in Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont gave CNN a chance to show off a technological bag of tricks, including its “multitouch” interactive video wall and an Election Express bus that carries its own built-in HDTV editing studio.

David Bohrman, CNN senior vice president and Washington, D.C., bureau chief, coordinated much of the planning for how news-covering technologies should be deployed in this election cycle, and he believes it has paid off. CNN led the Super Tuesday ratings for primetime coverage, drawing an average of more than 3.6 million viewers, and in general, its election coverage has been doing well against cable news competitors.

“I've sort of always been on the hunt for new technologies that can help us explain stories,” Bohrman said.

CNN pioneered some of the techniques now used in the newsroom with its 2004 election-night coverage, which was broadcast from NASDAQ headquarters and used some of the stock exchange's technologies for displaying information across 54 screens. The idea of allowing anchors and reporters to walk between multiple screens of information also inspired the setup of The Situation Room.

In this election cycle, CNN has taken interactivity to a new level with screens that respond to fingertip manipulation, for example allowing national correspondent John King to quickly sketch delegate count scenarios on a map of the United States. The multi-touch units from Perceptive Pixel also let reporters and anchors move and stretch images at the touch of a finger.

“It's basically an iPhone on steroids,” Bohrman said. “I mean, it's just about as close to Minority Report as you can get,” he added, referring to a scene in the movie where the Tom Cruise character sorts through a mass of information by waving his hands. “It's really an extension of the correspondent's mind -- or hand -- right into the data.”

Bohrman said the network previously experimented with a similar technology, a Northrop Grumman “touch table” that also worked very well, except that it was “difficult to shoot on TV because the camera had to be overhead.” He stumbled across the Perceptive Pixel version about a year ago at a spy conference in Orlando, Fla., the GEOINT non-classified trade show run by the National Geospacial Intelligence Agency.

Besides improving its in-studio coverage, CNN has invested in better ways of reporting from the field. The network spent a full year planning and outfitting the Election Express bus it began using in the run-up to the primaries last year. “In '04, we had a bus that traveled the country, and it was a great backdrop for CNN programming, but it didn't have all of the technology it should have,” Bohrman said.

So in anticipation of what looked to be a wide-open election that would be starting in 2007, CNN embarked on the process of outfitting a touring van with as much technology as it could pack in, while keeping to a budget for cost, the weight of the equipment, the heat it would generate, and the power it would consume. Overall, Bohrman thinks they did a pretty good job of balancing those demands -- although they did wind up with a makeup mirror crammed in a corner where no one could really get to it.

More than just a hopped-up satellite van, this 45-foot bus carries as many as 20 people, is wired for Wi-Fi and Internet and carries four HD cameras, 10 LCD monitors and one 42-inch plasma screen. The onboard HD editing studio includes a 13-terabyte server, which got a full workout as a mobile platform for editing and playing back clips for the YouTube debates CNN hosted last year.

“The YouTube debates could not have happened without the bus,” Bohrman stated flatly.

And when the party conventions come around this summer, CNN plans to repeat a practice it pioneered in 2004 of reporting entirely from the floor of the conventions, rather than from “sterile anchor booths,” Bohrman said. “Our primary broadcast location will once again be out on the floor. It's not only more exciting television, it's a lot cheaper.”