Ask not what nets can't do

All hands on deck for inaugural

For producers and correspondents covering the inauguration, today is one for the history books. Like everything surrounding the 2008 presidential campaign, the inauguration of Barack Obama dawns with broadcast media swinging for the fences. Not only are the usual suspects bringing their A teams, but cablers as diverse as BET, TV One, Al Jazeera and ESPN are offering live coverage of Obama's swearing-in. MTV will focus on inaugural coverage in the evening.

Add the expected crush of millions of the at-work audience tuning in around noon EST, and it's not a stretch to say this could be the most widely seen inauguration in U.S. history. The record, by far, is the 42 million who tuned in to see Ronald Reagan's first inauguration Jan. 20, 1981.

"If you love American history, this is the Super Bowl, and it caps a Super Bowl political season," said NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who will attend his seventh inauguration.

It also comes with Super Bowl-like expenses, if not Super Bowl-like advertising rates.

The networks have shelled out millions for pool coverage and millions more for extra camera angles, HD equipment and prime locations on and around Capitol Hill. The coverage is ad-supported, but ads will not be as plentiful as during regular programming.

ABC's ceremony coverage is sponsored by Audi, so it will not include commercials. CNN goes commercial-free at 11 a.m. and into the afternoon. MSNBC will not take commercial breaks before or after the noon swearing-in but will carry a normal load later.

"CBS Evening News" executive producer Rick Kaplan, a veteran of every inauguration since 1973, said there is pressure on every network to make sure this one is covered perfectly.

"It's an extraordinary event, and you want to get it right," he said. "What everyone wants to do is report in a way fitting the amazing importance of the event. … You want to have your A game on this story."

Coverage plans have been in the works since Election Night.

"This is really complex; it's a much bigger event than we've ever had for an inauguration," CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman said. "There are all these predictions for 1 or 2 or 3 million people coming to Washington. It's like biblical proportions."

Network operations throughout Washington are preparing like never before, with sleepovers in some bureaus and an expectation that once in place around dawn, no one will be able to move because of the crowds.

"It's not just an intricate, elegant ceremony at the Capitol and a parade," Bohrman said. "It's everything that's attached to having 3 million people around."

That figure would make this inauguration one of the biggest gatherings in U.S. history. "It won't be the hajj, but it'll be close," one TV producer said.

Williams always looks forward to the traditional 21-gun salute.

"We're close enough to feel the concussion from the howitzers at our NBC News studio," he said. "Then you see the blasts and the puffs of smoke after. It's a heart-numbing moment."

Kaplan said the most amazing thing is that at noon, the government will change hands — peacefully.

"People should sit back and be extraordinarily proud of their Constitution and their country," he said. "This is just an amazing moment, and I think everyone will be moved by it." (partialdiff)