Networks Keep on Truckin'

The networks have taken their Election 2008 shows on the road. For Election '08, CNN unveiled its Election Express, a news studio on wheels that will serve as an HD newsroom and set throughout the election season. It gets 6-8 miles per gallon, and can use biodiesel where available. The Election Express is the obsession of David Bohrman, vice president of news and production and the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for CNN, who helped design the bus.

Just this weekend, Fox News deployed its ElectionLink mobile news trucks—two tricked-out Ford Expeditions shrink-wrapped with the channel's You Decide 2008 slogan—one to New Hampshire and one to Iowa. The ElectionLink trucks are standard-definition and tapeless, with live IP streaming and a backup system that can transmit through cellular air-cards. The trucks have three cameras: one on the roof; a dashboard-mounted anchor camera aimed at the passenger seat; and a handheld.

B&C's P.J. Bednarski toured the CNN bus in New York recently with Bohrman. And B&C's Marisa Guthrie spoke with Fox News Washington bureau chief Brian Wilson about Fox's newest mobile unit.

Bednarski: Show me around the Election Express. The front here looks like a couple of soft black couches and chairs, like a nice tour bus.

Bohrman: The front half of the bus has two distinct uses. Primarily, it's going to become a newsroom for about 20 people to work. The whole side of the bus has power strips and computer connectors. The walls here fold up and underneath are these benches [that flip up]. So, within a few minutes we can turn this into a fully functioning newsroom with power, computer connectivity.

The same thing happens on the other side. Tables like this emerge from under the couch. It makes a great workspace. You can get a lot of people in here, especially when it's 15 below and you're in Iowa. The same area, if we take this down, this is a studio, and it's set for one-on-one candidate interviews.

What kind of HD cameras are on board?

The bus travels with four relatively light HD cameras. Right now these are Canons, but we're going to switch to Sonys near the end of the year because they're a little more compact. And they're going to be used by our producers and out in the field.

There's a satellite dish on the roof, and it supports four simultaneous hi-def feeds up into space. All four cameras come back live to Atlanta or Washington or New York, where a control room takes them in and makes it a program. We have a full final-cut edit room, probably the best final-cut edit room at all of CNN in here right now.

Now in the back of the bus, what's all this?

We've got built-in things like makeup mirrors. There's a bathroom with a shower, which in the event of a serious news emergency–if we get ourselves into a Hurricane Katrina or [some other] terrible [storm]–for a few weeks, we can keep a little clean. Here's the most important thing–the coffee machine.

Guthrie: How will ElectionLink enhance Fox News' coverage?

Wilson: For example, we're chasing the [John] McCain bus across, let's say, Iowa, you've got the anchor talking to the [dash-mounted] camera, “We're chasing the McCain bus out of Dubuque as it heads to Des Moines…” And you see pictures of this actually happening as you roll down the highway. And let's say the bus pulls over on the side of the road and the candidate gets out and shakes hands. In real time, we can pull over to the side of the road with him, the reporter gets out, and the cameraman gets out and walks right into the crowd live. No cables, no wires, nothing.

The whole idea is that this versatile vehicle allows us to do anything on the fly, and people at home will actually see it but in real time.

What's the quality of the picture?

The technology is Streambox technology. It's not what you'd call true broadcast quality at this point, but it's very good. You'd have no problems in a breaking news situation putting this on air.

This election is about to kick into breakneck pace. How important is it to have something like this now?

What it really means is that our reporters don't have to be tied to a satellite truck all day. When there's news, they can be out in it. We're going to be out gathering the news, and the viewer is going to be along for the ride as it happens. I think it's amazingly exciting technology.

And an SUV can go faster than a bus.

It's lean and it's mean and it's very versatile. Our competitor's bus is an interesting piece of technology, but it can only be in one place at one time. We're going to be in two places, and people are going to see things as they are actually happening.

We can go anywhere. Anywhere that an SUV can go, we can go. And it's four-wheel drive so we can off-road when we want to.