Networks 'pull together' for Ford funeral coverage


NEW YORK -- Tuesday's state funeral for President Gerald R. Ford has been years in the making, a result of the wishes of Ford and his family and, in the coverage, years of work by TV networks.

Ford's six days of memorials began Friday, when his casket was brought to a Palm Springs church and continued during the weekend in Washington, where his body lay at state in the Capitol Rotunda. After Tuesday's funeral, it will be brought to Grand Rapids, Mich., where another service will be held and then interment at the president's library and museum.

Even though they didn't know when it would occur, network TV's preparations for Ford's services were in the planning stages since before President Ronald Reagan's passing in 2004. Ford at 93 was the longest-living former president and had been in ill health for a while.

"We've been having pool conversations about this story for a while now," said Phil Alongi, executive producer of NBC News special coverage. "This has been in the planning stages for years."

Like such other big national events as inaugurations and State of the Union Addresses, a presidential funeral is covered by the so-called network pool that includes ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC. Each network takes responsibility for a portion of the event, which will take place in three regions of the country and in four states and the District of Columbia.

"These logistically are very, very big projects," Alongi said. "This is one time when all the networks pull together."

CBS is the pool network for the motorcade and Andrews Air Force Base, where the casket was to be flown to Saturday and flown out of Tuesday. NBC is the pool for the Capitol, ABC for the Washington National Cathedral and Fox News Channel handles the pool for the initial viewing in California and the burial in Grand Rapids. CNN is the overall pool producer.

"The assignments are done and the right people have been to Grand Rapids a couple of times, they've known where the cameras are going to be," CNN Washington bureau chief David Bohrman said.

Planning began in earnest after Reagan's state funeral in June 2004, when executives from the networks discussed how the coverage went and what could be improved. Network personnel have gone to the Ford museum and library, where the former president will be buried, several times over the years to organize the coverage when the time came. The networks have met several times since 2004 about the coverage of the state funeral; those calls became daily and more frequently after Ford died.

While the networks waited until well after the family announced the plans Wednesday, executives said it generally was understood what each of the former presidents wish when their time comes.

"We know as much as the (National) Military District and each presidents' library has decided to share with us," Bohrman said. "It's usually a lot. The planning is complex and it's in everybody's best interest."

There haven't been many state funerals in recent years, with the first in 30 years for President Reagan. (The last one was in 1973 for President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Richard M. Nixon declined to have a state funeral when he died in 1994.) But Bohrman and Alongi said that in many ways, covering state funerals are like televising inaugurations that occur every four years.

There are differences, even between state funerals. Reagan's casket was carried by horse-drawn caisson; Ford's body will be driven via motorcade to the National Cathedral. Ford's body arrived Saturday at Andrews Air Force Base in suburban Maryland -- and through Alexandria, Va., on its way to the Capitol -- in the late afternoon when it's dark in Washington.

That could cause a bit of challenge, not just for the spectators but also for the networks covering it.

"The arrival motorcade is going to be hard for people to see when they line Constitution (Avenue)," CNN's Bohrman said last week before Ford's casket arrived in Washington.

"One of the reasons we're picking up coverage Saturday at the Capitol is that the actual viewing experience on the motorcade route won't be very good (because of the dark) so it won't lend itself to live television coverage," ABC News senior vp Bob Murphy said last week. "President Reagan's was during the day."

Even with the discussions and the run-throughs, there was some work being done during the holiday weekend by the networks who called in people who were on vacation to make sure it would all be done in time.

"What we've run into in two locations is that in the cathedral there is construction going on and there's ongoing construction at the Capitol," Alongi said. "Some of that hinders what we would like to do ... and we have to figure out unique ways of doing that."