Last night, I was watching the Republican convention from the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. I will admit up front that I tend to watch political conventions more as theater than for their political content, as these have always been the most scripted events in our world. They are also among the most lavishly equipped and staged AV events on our planet. I can practically watch them with the sound off, just enjoying the elaborate staging and lighting since I already know most of what the content will be. They are rather like kabuki with video walls, highly organized and professionally staged with content anyone could have predicted.
Until this year, of course.
This year’s campaign has proven to be an organizational train wreck the likes of which have not been seen in decades. Failed endorsements, ill-prepared speakers, obvious plagiarism and chaos outside the convention center have contributed to what even the right-wing media is calling an organizational disaster.
What causes me to write this column is a danger we all face in the staging portion of the industry, namely to be left publicly holding the bag for organizational or technical problems caused by others farther up the line.
One of this morning’s news shows unfortunately both talked about and showed clips of what they described as “technical failures” in the audiovisual systems, most especially the giant (and beautiful) video displays. They showed them going dark at moments, flickering and at times showing the wrong content. It made me cringe, as I felt for the technical crew. I have been there when an organizational train wreck of a show left me holding the bag, at least visually.
Why are political events so complex, and why do they always have the potential for glitches? Simple. Believe it or not, it tends to come from messaging.
Think about shows. The purpose of most public events is to deliver a “take away” message. Everything flows from there, every phase of the show is designed to implant that message in the audience. However, what happens in a political convention is a distillation of mixed messaging. Every group coming into the convention, every state delegation, every special interest, every group who supported a different candidate has a message THEY want to get out. They are allowed floor demonstrations and staged votes to have a chance to deliver that message. In the meantime, backroom deals are being made that change the messaging. This results in show scripts and cue sheets changing rapidly, sometimes until they become entirely meaningless and the show is being called on the fly.
Then consider the size of the team that has to make this show happen technically. There’s also the lighting, sound and video people, the unions and the various (and often conflicting) campaign officials who will be getting involved. All of these things, the technical complexity, the rapid changes, the multiple power groups and the changing message combine to create some of the most complicated shows any of us could tackle.
Consider also the massive volume of equipment that must come together on site, from multiple companies, plus the installed systems at the arena, making for a technically complex show. I have not worked the Democratic or Republican National Convention, but I have worked many presidential and campaign events, and have found myself late at night working with colleagues I had not met before that day, diagramming systems from multiple companies to make them all fit together.
Take those complexities, add to them the chaos of the event itself, and you know why the proverbial ancient Chinese character for change is a combination of the characters for danger and opportunity.
On top of that, add the fact that a lot of people at a political convention are, by definition, going to be disappointed.
For all of these things, all it takes is a screen flickering for the AV crew to become the target of misplaced anger, or of criticism that really should’ve been criticism of the entire show. No one in the audience (or among the “critics” in the media) will ever know where the error that produced that screen flicker or missed switch actually occurred.
But that is part of our business. I learned a long time ago that there is nothing I can do about that. And with the show this complex, there are going to be errors.
But looking at the magnificent set that was produced for the Republican convention this year, I always remember one of my favorite quotes: “The amazing thing about circus bears is not how well they dance; it is that they dance at all.”
All in all, from what I could see watching it, this was one beautifully staged show. I will be standing by to see what the Democratic convention produces. It ought to be spectacular.
Congratulations to both teams for landing these shows, for the courage and professional competence it takes to put one on, and for “making AV great again.”
All RNC 2016 images via Disney ABC Television Group