Caucuses pave way for nets' Election Night plan


NEW YORK -- When the Iowa caucuses take place Thursday, it not only will be the first vote in the nation but also TV journalism's first crack at its strategy for Election Night 2008.

It's anything but another election season for the networks, which have covered the doings in Iowa and New Hampshire earlier and more often than any other year. It reaches the boiling point Thursday with the results of the Iowa caucuses, which will be covered wall-to-wall by the cable nets and as frequent updates during primetime on the broadcast nets.

The networks, however, aren't marching in lock step. ABC, CBS and Fox News Channel will have their anchors and big-time reporters on the ground in Des Moines, using the tried-and-true formula they've honed for decades. "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams and "Meet the Press" moderator Tim Russert are doing double duty, with cut-ins during primetime on NBC and reports for MSNBC. But MSNBC and CNN will run its decision desk and anchors out of their Manhattan studios, though they will have significant forces on the ground, too.

"You need folks at 30,000 feet, and you need folks on the ground," NBC News political director Chuck Todd said. Williams, Russert and others will be on the ground for NBC; MSNBC will have anchors Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews in New York.

CNN will take a page from its 2006 playbook, using the Time Warner Center studio that it used to cover the midterm elections 18 months ago. That's also where Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper and Lou Dobbs will be.

"It does not make sense for me to build entire broadcast operations in Iowa and New Hampshire," said David Bohrman, CNN's senior vp and Washington bureau chief. "Then where do you go for Super Tuesday, when it's a national primary?"

CNN spent all of December, with only a few days off for Christmas and New Year's, to build its set.

"We have all the right people here and much better graphics equipment here, video walls that bring in everything, and we've got the bus and other technologies and major reporters in Iowa and New Hampshire," Bohrman said.

Fox News Channel takes a different approach. Brit Hume, Chris Wallace and its political team, along with others, will be on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"It's important to have our anchors there," "Fox News Sunday" executive producer Marty Ryan said. Fox News is putting its set in Iowa at the Polk County Convention Center, where both parties have their caucus-counting headquarters. In New Hampshire, Fox News built a special studio on the grounds of St. Anselm's College in Manchester, N.H., where the programs and reporters will originate.

ABC is gearing up for a busy week, not only covering the campaigns but also a dual debate Saturday at St. Anselm's that will be the first back-to-back debate in recent history. "World News" anchor Charles Gibson will moderate the debate. Invites won't go out to candidates until after the Iowa caucuses results, to determine who will participate.

The anchors and some staff of the major ABC News shows will be in Iowa and New Hampshire, though the operational control room will remain in New York.

"We're not building the ('Good Morning America') Times Square studio in the middle of downtown Des Moines," ABC News political director David Chalian said.

CBS has had on- and off-air reporters and correspondents with the front-runners as well as using the "baby pool" of shared resources among CBS, ABC and Fox News Channel. The pool, which also was up and running last election cycle, helps during the early campaign season as well as a big event such as a caucus or primary.

"It's an attempt to be rational and cost-conscious," CBS News senior vp Paul Friedman said. "It doesn't make any sense at all to have five cameras all in a row shooting the same thing. We're not talking about enterprise stories." At the same time, "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric will anchor from Iowa and New Hampshire; Couric also will anchor the primetime updates Thursday and next Tuesday.

Although the weather is likely to be fine for Caucus Day in Iowa and Primary Day in New Hampshire, the networks aren't taking chances. They've been prepared for cold and snowstorms to play havoc on their plans, knowing what can happen in those parts of the country in the winter. In 2003, a blizzard delayed some of the candidates from appearing in a presidential debate sponsored by ABC News. There are contingency plans for everything.

"Should there be a blizzard, we'll be ready for it," Chalian said.