Nets set for historic Inauguration Day

Broadcast, cable outlets spending millions to cover event

NEW YORK -- For producers and correspondents covering the inauguration, Tuesday 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.

For several weeks, producers have screened footage of past inaugural moments: Reagan's first in 1981, John F. Kennedy's in 1961 and whatever they can find from what might be the most analogous, the March 1933 swearing-in of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. The first inauguration with sound film is Herbert Hoover's in 1929.

JFK's memorable "Ask not what your country can do for you ..." moment undoubtedly will get lots of play, but its production values, while in color, are not as strong as they could be. Producers said there is a shaky camera and "challenged" technical remotes.

"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. This is a critical period in our country's history -- you want to have your A game on this story."

Coverage plans have been in the works since Election Night. Each broadcast and news network has taken a piece of the ceremony to add to pool coverage, available to all networks who pay for it.

NBC has the Capitol pool, CBS has the parade, and ABC has the reviewing stand across from the White House. CNN coordinates all of the pools. Fox News will cover the departure of President Bush and had the pool for Obama's train ride to Washington. The Rupert Murdoch-owned outlet also will provide video and audio of Obama's first State of the Union address.

"It's just a ton of work for all five," one executive said.

In addition, each network has placed cameras in and around the Capitol, the National Mall and the parade route. CNN has parked its Election Express bus close to the Mall, with a 50-foot crane attached.

Networks' plans have been made even more complicated by the sheer number of events -- there practically has been wall-to-wall coverage since the train carrying Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden left Philadelphia -- and by as many as 3 million spectators expected to be on the Mall for the swearing-in. Security also is tighter than it has been in a long time.

"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.

For Williams, it's all about the howitzers.

"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 -- it's like 21 periods at the end of a sentence. It's possible to live in suburban Washington, and if you didn't know that it was Inauguration Day, you would know by those 21 howitzers that there had been a change in presidents. That's a great, great tradition."

As for what Obama will say during his inaugural address, political experts believe he will have words to match the historic circumstances facing the nation.

"You will get a Kennedy-esque kind of moment by the end, where Obama will acknowledge he can't do it alone and the cooperation he needs," said Bruce Gronbeck, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. "Every president since Kennedy has had to do that."

It is, Gronbeck added, a uniquely American ability: "The United States is a country that can regularly start over when it's in trouble. Roosevelt had a New Deal; Kennedy had a New Frontier. It's the sense of newness."

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."