The Democratic National Convention will play out like a star-studded Zoom call next week, anchored by nightly prime-time keynote speeches, with Michelle Obama on Monday, Jill Biden on Tuesday, Barack Obama on Wednesday, and Joe Biden’s acceptance speech on Thursday, according to a schedule of events.
The convention, originally planned for Milwaukee, then forced into a cramped virtual format by the coronavirus pandemic, has been a logistical nightmare for planners who have had to grapple with wary television networks, daunting technical challenges and the omnipresent, low-grade threat of a disruption by President Donald Trump.
The schedule, provided by Democratic officials involved in the planning, above all else reflects Biden’s chief political goal: uniting the jostling progressive and establishment wings of the Democratic Party behind an elder statesman who has spent the last several months courting skeptical progressives.
The first-night schedule reflects that big-tent objective. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Biden’s main rival for the nomination — and still the standard-bearer of the populist left — has been given a keynote slot, just before Michelle Obama speaks, and after Andrew Cuomo, the moderate governor of New York, delivers what is expected to be a scathing attack on Trump’s handling of the health crisis.
After the formality of a virtual delegate vote Tuesday, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who was announced Tuesday as Biden’s running mate, will address the convention Wednesday. Planners have also scheduled speaking times for some top vice-presidential contenders who were not chosen, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Bill Clinton will speak Tuesday, after Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general who briefly oversaw the investigation into potential ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. Hillary Clinton is set to appear Wednesday, the same night as Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was severely wounded by a gunman in 2011.
Entertainers and pop-culture stars are also expected to appear, but the party has been more tight-lipped on its Hollywood talent than on the Washington lineup.
For viewers at home, the usual tableau of cheering delegates and supersize balloon drops will be replaced by green screens and about three dozen politicians speaking remotely over satellite feeds that — if the event coordinators are lucky — don’t freeze, drop audio or disintegrate into pixels as millions of Americans look on from the isolation of their homes.
To minimize risk, the convention’s planning team — led by Stephanie Cutter, a veteran Democratic operative, and Ricky Kirshner, a producer of the Super Bowl halftime show — plan to weave in taped segments with live speeches to avoid embarrassing electronic faceplants.
The address by Michelle Obama, who officials believe could attract the widest viewership of the week aside from Biden, was being filmed this week at her family’s vacation house on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, in part to ensure that the first night ends on an emphatic — and technologically predictable — high note, according to several people with direct knowledge of the situation.Obama has told friends that she views the speech as her major contribution to the 2020 race. But the decision to tape her address in advance is likely to rankle network executives already grappling with a warped version of what is typically one of the biggest television moments of an election year.
Sensitive to being seen as passive vessels for politicians, TV news producers frown on taped material; in past conventions, network cameras have usually cut away from those segments for commentary and analysis.
But the remote nature of the proceedings means that networks will have to act more like air traffic controllers, directing a flurry of video feeds, than on-the-ground chroniclers of a heaving human spectacle. News anchors will cover the events from studios in New York and Washington, with some pundits beaming in from summer homes.
The major broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, plan to carry an hour of the convention live each night, from 10-11 p.m. on the East Coast. Cable news channels will air the two-hour nightly proceedings in full, but the Democrats’ jampacked schedule poses a risk that local affiliates in swing states could cut away at 11 p.m. if speakers are not wrapped up.To add more visual pizazz for viewers, Democratic officials have encouraged their remote speakers to set up cameras in symbolic and visually interesting locations, rather than drab Zoom backgrounds, like bookcases and spare rooms, that are common to cable talk shows.
If the convention’s format is unconventional, its political function is anything but.Biden, a people pleaser by personal inclination and political design, is trying to build a frictionless launching pad for his fall campaign, in contrast to the rancorous party confab in Philadelphia four years ago when bitter infighting culminated with a brief chorus of boos at the start of Clinton’s acceptance speech.
To do so, Biden’s team is devoting much of its prime-time space to two political power couples, the Clintons and the Obamas, who embody the party’s recent past, while providing a platform to the party’s ascendant left wing, represented by Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a democratic socialist who once groaned when asked how she would respond to a Biden nomination.
Some of the Democrats’ planning headaches stemmed from the sheer shortage of virtual podium time — not a problem in past years when conventions stretched through lazy afternoons and early evenings, providing lesser-known speakers with a few minutes to make their cases on a big stage, however small the actual audience.
“The fact of the matter is that you have a very, very limited amount of time,” said Jeff Weaver, a top adviser to Sanders who helped negotiate the tense détente with Clinton in 2016. “You’ve gone from having 20-plus hours of convention airtime, with all the networks on site, to seven or eight hours.”
For the major networks, the event will be a far cry from conventions when thousands of journalists flooded a host city and news outlets invested millions of dollars in building high-gloss sets and mobile control rooms. And with the kickoff a week away, some key details have yet to be hammered out.Biden is scheduled to accept the nomination Thursday, the convention’s final night, near his home in Delaware. But the exact location, and the form and fashion in which he will speak, have yet to be announced, including whether the address will take place outdoors.
Plans for the Republican National Convention, taking place a week later, are even more uncertain, to the consternation of network executives scrambling to plan coverage for an event that is typically months in the making.
Trump abandoned Charlotte, North Carolina, for Jacksonville, Florida, only to reverse course because of the coronavirus. On Monday, he said he was deciding between an acceptance speech at the White House or the battlefield at Gettysburg, although aides say the president is leaning toward staying in Washington.
Either way, the convention is expected to be a family affair. The president’s children, including Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka Trump, are likely to be featured prime-time speakers. The first lady, Melania Trump, is also expected to speak, along with Vice President Mike Pence, according to several Republican officials involved in the planning.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, who delivered a memorable fire-and-brimstone stemwinder at the 2016 convention, is not expected to be featured in prime time, officials said.