CNN rolls with punches for inauguration

'Big-ass' camera among net's framework for coverage

NEW YORK -- To cover a historic event like the inauguration of a president, you need the right people in the right place at the right time, a copy of the Constitution and, in CNN's case, the help of a "big-ass" camera.

The channel had an extensive presence in Washington on Tuesday, including anchors Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper ensconced at the Newseum, as well as a multitude of analysts and reporters there and elsewhere. But the channel's control room was located not in the nation's capital but instead a shuttle ride north at the Time Warner Center in New York. It was there that the channel's top two producers, senior vp David Bohrman and vp Sam Feist, ran the telecast from a fourth-floor studio with about a dozen other staffers.

Fifty pool cameras are taking in everything at the Capitol, along with 46 high-definition cameras that CNN have set up on their own, as well as feeds from all over the country as the nation tunes in to watch Obama's inauguration. It's a full-time job for Bohrman, Feist and their staff to switch between them for maximum effect; it's a feat that is being duplicated by the other networks carrying the inaugural events. CNN's cameras are, onscreen, labeled for easy understanding: IIB, Lincoln (near the Lincoln Memorial), Crane (for high-altitude shots) and one called "Big Ass." Far from being scatalogical, "Big Ass" is the network's largest and most powerful camera, a "big ass" camera. The moniker, long ago given, stuck. But it is a little jarring when referred to in the control room.

CNN's telecast, like all the others, were nearly flawless. But after the 11 a.m. hour passed, and former presidents and their wives weren't yet at their seats, it was clear that things were behind schedule. Just before 11:30 a.m., Laura Bush and Michelle Obama were seated, 10 minutes later than expected. Seven minutes later, President Bush is announced. There's no chance that in 20 minutes, Vice President Joe Biden can be sworn in, the invocation by the Rev. Rick Warren can be done and the two musical selections performed.

A woman in the CNN control room, on a direct line to the networks' pool center, picks up the phone.

"CNN to Capitol pool," she says, then pauses. "Do we expect any change in schedule because they're running so late?"

There aren't any changes, things are just going to be late. The president-elect is announced, then steps out on to the Capitol platform to a resounding cheer. CNN split screens Obama along with the crowd in the National Mall, and switches to live scenes in Memphis, Pasadena, Chicago, as well as growing crowds in Harlem and Times Square here in New York. But despite the cheer, things don't change: It's 11:45 a.m., when it should have been 11:34 a.m.

The question hangs in the control room, though it isn't addressed on air yet. Does the oath of office have to be administered by noon, and if it isn't exactly on time, who is president? Feist, for what won't be the first time today, pulls up a copy of the Constitution on his computer screen.

"Absolutely, Obama becomes president at noon" regardless of the oath, Feist discovers. The word filters down to the anchors, who report it. And quietly Borhman and Feist have readied a plan to show, not just tell, viewers as soon after noon as possible. While Warren gives the invocation shortly after noon, CNN puts up on the screen that Obama is, even without the oath, now constitutionally the president of the U.S. Delicately, nearly sotto voce in between events, Blitzer tells the viewers the same thing.

There's a little bit of tension, and quizzical faces, when the oath of office is finally administered by Chief Justice John Roberts. In what will never be a Kodak moment, Roberts and Obama fell off script in that age-old tradition. Roberts mangled the oath and apparently Obama, who had memorized it, was derailed as well. In the control room, once again, the copy of the Constitution is opened.

"He messed it up," CNN's Anderson Cooper said, referring to Roberts about 30 minutes after it happened. Blitzer noted that Roberts had only that one job to do the whole day then asked legal affairs correspondent Jeffrey Toobin what he thought.

"I almost fell out of my chair," Toobin said. "It's only a 35-word oath."

But there was brighter moments captured by the cameras as well, including the Obamas' 10-year-old daughter Malia capturing the scene from her vantage point by digital camera. She even asked Biden to help her take a photograph or two, and the vice president complied. That scene wasn't lost on the control room either, especially not when the network had been asking viewers to send in their own camera and cell-phone photos of what they called "The Moment" of Inauguration.

"Someone ask her to send that photo to CNN's the Moment," someone in the control room jokes.