Skip to main content

NAB 2009: CNN's Bohrman Revisits Election Night Holograms, Magic Walls

Click here for complete coverage of the 2009 NAB Show

David Bohrman, senior VP and Washington bureau chief for CNN, has helped bring innovations like the Magic Wall and holograms to his network. In advance of a panel he is leading at NAB in Las Vegas, Bohrman spoke with B&C's Alex Weprin about his high hopes for holograms and his thoughts on George Stephanopoulos' “Twitterview†with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

You are going to be presenting at the NAB Show in Las Vegas next week, can you talk about what you will be discussing there?

I am going to really focus on politics and innovation, and a little bit of evolution of that over the last 50 years. I have some interesting clips going back, from ‘56 and 1960, and there are clear echoes in some of the coverage we did in 2008.

I just looked back at the clip of Douglas Edwards and Univac predicting the 1956 election, and trying to explain how computers work to viewers. Match that up against our Magic Wall with John King, and the level of production and graphics and all the things we have learned over the years and the boundaries we have pushed.

Our first toe into the water with this was in 2004, when I pushed to do the election coverage at the NASDAQ, where we had 72 screens. Visually, it looked very much like 1956 or ‘60, where back then they had a wall of vote boards, and they were fixed-this one was the West, this square was California, there were numbers that were changing but there was no flexibility in it. So we took this idea of a big expansive wall of votes, and brought it to the floor of the NASDAQ, where you had electronic screens, but at the snap of your finger that would also become several live video streams and exit poll graphics.

That sort of environmental graphic look really lead to The Situation Room. It has sort of begun to change daytime cable-very different than a traditional evening newscast with an anchor and a full screen graphic. Then we went with that in 2006 and 2008, where we have multiple vote board and pie charts on the walls, and interactive data, and John King drilling into Indiana, explaining why we are unable to project it while our competitors have, and here is why. The tools have allowed us to be clearer and better.

Which of the technologies that you used during the election got the best reception?

I think the wall with John King. It is a little odd that we call it the "Magic Wall," but that is what it is called. It is one piece of technology that doesn't intimidate or get in the way of what you are trying to explain, whether it is showing Google Earth on a map or county-by-county votes. It was probably the key and most important technology.

Vizrt is going to be demonstrating the hologram technology you used on Election Night. If the technology gets cheaper, and better, do you think there is a future for something like that?

What we did was incredibly complicated, it was an idea that I have been trying to put together for a dozen years. Ultimately, I think it is the right way for television to do remote interviews. As long as the viewer clearly gets the fact that we are not trying to fool the viewer and pretend they are in the room.

I will tell you, the quality of the feed was much better than we made it look. In an odd way, people have an idea in their minds of what a hologram should look like, and we treated that feed through some effects to make it look more like what someone would expect a hologram to look like. You add a little transparency, a little blue, a little border. The feed coming in from the rig, the transporter room we had in Grant Park, looked fabulous. We specifically downgraded the look to some extent to reinforce the fact that it was a transmission as opposed to some slight-of-hand, fooling presence.

I think ultimately holographic technology will advance to the point where that image is viewable in the room. It will become a much more intimate, conversational way to do a remote interview.

I know some of the anchors at CNN use Twitter. Can you talk a little bit about how you use technology to communicate with viewers?

We have tried to be out front on reporting on various media uses and resources. In '04, before blogs hit the radar, we had the head of a company called Technorati, which monitors blog moods, in some sense to monitor what the blogs were saying.

I think a lot of our viewers watched election night on two screens. They were having Facebook conversations with their friends, drilling into our data and talking to their special network, dealing with the event as part of a bigger community than just their living room. We are constantly trying to figure out where new media tools can best be used. Some of them are just being used to be used, but some can be helpful as newsgathering devices.

Rick Sanchez uses Twitter a lot on his show, and ABC's George Stephanopoulos conducted a "Twitterview" with Sen. John McCain.

A couple years ago, when we came up with the idea for the YouTube debate, it seemed like an impossible thing to do technologically and to convince people it was really right for this election year and moving forward. That said, I am not sure George Stephanopoulos should go and ask people what he should ask [in an interview]. Traditionally, we would go out and get questions for interviews. I think it is probably a little too much to say, ‘Gee, I am going to interview the president; give me ideas." That is probably a little disingenuous.

Do you think there is a place for advertising tie-ins to the technology you are using?

You always want to be careful because you don't want advertising to encroach on news coverage. That having been said, the clip I was looking at from 1956 certainly looks like a commercial for Remington Rand and the Univac. You just want the viewer to never suspect that you are covering something or saying something or using something for any other reason than it is the right piece of news or the right piece of technology.  We try never to let advertising cross into the content of what we are doing.

How do you think John King has been doing on his new Sunday show?

I think he has been doing great. It is very early in the genesis of the program. I have created a lot of programs over the last 30 years, and I think it is off to a great start. There are some things I know I want to tinker with. Michelle Jaconi, who is the executive producer, has really leapt into it, has very quickly figured out the systems at CNN. And the program is beginning to have a voice that is clearly John's, with a little bit of Michelle mixed in. 

I have a list of things I would like to see it do and evolve, but I think it is the program to watch on Sunday mornings, and as we evolve it more and more it will become irresistible.

One of the things I remember from my 13 years at ABC was that Roone Arledge wanted to own Sunday morning, to create the Sunday morning newsmagazine newspaper that modulated and had the biggest guests and interesting stories. I think State of the Union has all the makings of that.

I know he continues to use the Magic Wall on the show. Will we be seeing more tech on the show going forward?

John was very skeptical of the wall, but it just became an extension of his brain. Whether he has the chairman of the joint chiefs or General Odierno [commander of the multinational force in Iraq], you can use those tools and have some of the guests come on and illustrate things and explain their perspective and point of view.  It is one of the signature aspects of the program, but it would be a mistake to think it revolves around the wall. It revolves around John; he has a lot of depth and a lot of abilities.

What does CNN have planned for Barack Obama's 100th day in office?

We promised that we would keep them honest, and we will take a look, big stock, at what everyone has been doing-the president, the administration, how congress is doing, how everyone who got elected is doing. Did they live up to their promise? Did they do what they said? What haven't they done? Basically, it will be a report card on how they are doing.

I think it is important for us to keep reminding the viewers of what people promised to do, and reminding elected officials what they said they would do, and then it is our job to keep track and let viewers make decisions. I think it is part of the core of our responsibility to check up on those guys and see how they are doing.