Skip to main content

Networks Prepare for 'Union' Spectacle

For a State of the Union speech early in the first term of President George W. Bush, a cadre of Washington insiders was invited to watch the telecast at the White House. At one point, the television was tuned to CNN. There were voluble boos, says one person who was there. So the channel was switched back to Fox News, to cheers and applause.

Any editorializing in the television coverage of the speech itself—produced by the pool that rotates among the five television news divisions at ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News—may be in the eye of the beholder. But as the networks will rediscover when President Obama addresses the nation from the podium in the Senate chamber in the coming weeks, there is also great potential for messaging in telecasting one of the most storied spectacles in American politics.

(A tight senate race in Massachusetts, which could imperil the health care reform bill, is complicating the schedule for the speech. The State of the Union speech is traditionally on a Tuesday in January; however, the White House confirmed that the president will deliver the speech Wednesday, Jan. 27.

To be sure, the pool strives for and achieves objectivity. But the ideological divide in Washington inevitably imbues the proceedings with controversy. Veteran pool producers say they have never received complaints about their handling of the speech from administrations. And there are no guidelines—official or unofficial—designed to achieve parity in cutaways between the president's supporters and detractors.

“There's no input whatsoever that anyone in officialdom has,” says David Bohrman, senior VP of programming and Washington bureau chief at CNN, which is the pool camera for this year's State of the Union.

There is an open line in the pool truck during the speech so that other networks can request certain shots. And the pool director will get a copy of the speech so that he can anticipate whom to direct the camera on and when. But neither the administration nor the Speaker of the House's office has any say in what the cameras do or don't show at any given moment.

“It's completely up to us what we do,” Bohrman says. “There's no influence at all.”

President Obama's last address to a joint session of Congress in September was punctuated by Rep. Joe Wilson screaming “You lie!” at the president. And while the South Carolina congressman was officially rebuked by his colleagues in the House of Representatives, his outburst also earned him notoriety, followed by some donations to his war chest. With the Hill still very much consumed by rancor over the health-care reform bill and many observers declaring the days of the convivial Congress dead and buried, is there potential for more Wilson-esque salvos?

“I don't know that because [Wilson] spoke out at that speech it's going to cause a lot of people to be boisterous in the hall,” Bohrman says. “They're generally a well-behaved group; some will applaud and some will sit on their hands. But I don't think we're anticipating question time in Parliament.”

Exposure can be a motivating factor. More than 30 million viewers watched last September's speech on eight networks. And if there is a spontaneous eruption of vitriol from a member of Congress, as opposed to the more mundane disruptions of anonymous protesters who periodically wrangle their way into the cheap seats, the pool director will not refrain from showing it.

“If it's newsworthy, we cover it,” says Paul Friedman, executive VP at CBS News. “And if somebody does something like that, it's automatically news, given the setting. So there's no way to duck it or want to duck it.”


The cast of characters keeps changing, but the telecast of the State of the Union address itself has changed only marginally over the years. The last innovation to be coaxed through was in 2005, when Bohrman convinced the Speaker's office to allow a jib camera in the back of the House chamber, and a wireless HD camera to follow the president's entrance and exit out of the hall. The wireless camera offers a more revealing peak at the often-awkward ritual of presidential glad-handing than the stable cameras ever could.

“It was a bit of an uphill struggle,” Bohrman says. “I knew that with HD we would be able to get really dramatic images from the jib in the back of the room. We were able to convince them that it wasn't going to take up very much space on the floor and that we would operate it carefully. It's now been accepted and is part of the basic setup.”


On C-SPAN, there is a concerted effort not to tinker with the video presentation of the speech. The network disavows extreme close-ups and zoom shots, and while it has the option to take the network pool for the speech, it opts for the more staid House feed.

“Our editorial approach is fly-on-the-wall,” explains C-SPAN Managing Editor Richard Weinstein. “We show you everything from beginning to end, and try to take any type of bias or slant out of it. We try to get as close to covering any event that happens up on Capitol Hill as if you were just sitting there in a chair watching it.”

The network, the unfiltered documenter of our government in action, had its own teachable moment in 1984 when shots of the crowd at Jesse Jackson's speech during the Democratic National Convention overwhelmingly featured African-Americans, though they made up a small percentage of those in attendance.

But whatever latitude—or lack thereof—pool directors have to shape the coverage of the State of the Union address, interpretation may come down to the ideological predilections of each viewer. The pool director, says independent television news analyst Andrew Tyndall, “could try to make decisions as idiosyncratic as they wanted to and no one would notice. All the difference in the spin comes from the way the speech is framed to begin with and the panel discussion afterward. It's a radio event.

“Individual viewers come to this with their own talking points already established. Nobody goes into it open-minded. They're not there to be persuaded, even you if you had [famed Russian director Sergei] Eisenstein doing the direction.“