Two debates in one night means twice the political theater and twice the logistical and production challenges behind the scenes.
For several months, producers have been working in Manchester, turning a small New England liberal arts college into a television studio and the center of the storm that is the 2008 presidential primary season this weekend.
"It's a pretty big operation to put on: four hours of prime time television," explains David Reiter, ABC News' senior producer for the debate. The production team spent part of the afternoon overseeing candidate run throughs and anticipating potential glitches in a production truck parked next to the event location.
Reiter estimates that the number of ABC staffers on the ground dedicated to the debates tops 100, not to mention locally hired carpenters, set designers, lighting designers, electricians, engineers, technical people, along with WMUR, ABC's affiliate station in New Hampshire, and Facebook, the social networking site that is collaborating and co-sponsoring the debate.
The Republican debate begins at 7 p.m. ET. The the Democratic debate is scheduled to begin approximately 15 minutes after the Republican debate ends.The order was decided by a coin toss.
But that proximity of the end of one debate and the start of the next means that not only must the stage be cleared of the candidates, but the audience of more than 500 changes as well. There is little overlap in the two audiences. That's not a lot of time to move that many people.
The Disney Model
Borrowing a tried-and-true lesson in how to move large groups of people from the ABC News parent company: Disney.
"We actually took the Disney model of amusement parks and how they change audiences. At the end of the first debate we'll open the doors on one side of the room and let them flow out, at the same time we'll open the doors on the other side of the room and let other people flow in who have already been lined up and brought over from the building next door," Reiter said.
On stage the design goal was matched to the tone that the moderator, ABC News' Charles Gibson, sought for the debate. "Charlie wanted to have a very conversational set," says Reiter. "A 'round the family dinner table' — so that posed some challenges too."
The set and audience are just two parts of the debate puzzle. The logistics of any presidential debate include making room for the campaigns, their supporters and the media.
"There are about 10 campus buildings that are being used for everything," Reiter continues. "From where the debate is, to where our work space is, which is in a different building, the spin room which is in a different building, the media filing center, the campaign staff. And there's a big security operation."
In the media filing center, also known as the St. Anselm's gymnasium, more than 800 members of the press will converge tonight to watch the debates and file reports for their respective news organizations.
"We are accommodating all the local and national political reporters who are covering the campaigns. ... We also have all the campaign travel pools that need to be accommodated in here because they're traveling with the candidates. And then we also have satellite truck operators, and sound technicians and camera people and — it's an enormous number of people," says Cathie Levine, ABC News' executive director for media relations.
Hours before the debate, the media requesting credentials hadn't stopped. "We put out the first call for credentials in early December, and we set the deadline as Jan. 2. And tons of people have decided to ignore the deadline and the requests are still coming in," she says.
Unlike the debate audience, the credentialed media in the filing ceneter will not be moving between debates. Levine says, "We couldn't separate it out because there's a very brief break in between. Besides the traveling pools, we assume everyone is staying put."
Levine says the size of the group and the volume of material that will be coming in and out of the gymnasium-cum-media-center also provide a challenge for SoapboxSPX, the group hired to manage remote broadband access for the filing center. "Their whole job is to make sure people can file their stories and file their pictures and that's a huge concern: that the system can hold up under the weight of all these people."
Mike Mitchell, a senior associate at the Soapbox Wi-Fi help desk in the filing center describes his role as "the high-end white glove help desk for the media" and says an event like this "takes a lot of cable, takes a lot of power, takes a lot of infrastructure to provide for the bandwith that everyone needs."
ABC Friends Facebook
The behind the scenes toiling for these debates was not limited to New Hampshire. In the New York headquarters of the network, ABC News' Diane Sawyer and George Stephanopoulos will begin broadcasting at 7 p.m. and return during and after the debates with analysis, reporting and updates of how online users are interacting with the debate on the social networking site online, Facebook. http://www.facebook.com/politics/ ABC's Bianna Golodryga will report from the ABC News/Facebook desk.
Throughout the debate, live "pulse" votes on Facebook allow users to rate the candidates' performances in the debate and engage in discussion about issues in ongoing debates.
Since September, a team of Facebook engineers in New York have been collaborating with ABC News' digital producers to prepare for the debate and design the new application that allows Facebook users to track developments in the campaign and participate in the debate, says Facebook spokesman Matt Hicks.
During the debates themselves, a team from Facebook is at ABC News headquarters in New York, coordinating with producers "to help integrate in our technology with their broadcast and to help feed in all this great content coming in from our users that can help give some analysis to what's going on," Hicks said.
"We purposefully went for this kind of concept," Hicks says, referencing the debate format emphasizing that it was important to Facebook to "have a real televised debate, not with any kind of Facebook element with people asking questions but a real debate complimented by the online component."