A Look Inside ‘The Situation Room’

Day one of “The Situation Room” is over. What are your thoughts on CNN’s new approach? Email us (garrett AT mediabistro DOT com) or use the tip box….

In a day filled with television news, CNN’s new baby, “The Situation Room,” is getting a much-muted premiere. The show, starring Wolf Blitzer as “Anchorman Wolf Blitzer,” replaces “Inside Politics” and “Crossfire,” and brings together a team of analysts, correspondents, and one good-natured but crotchety old man (specifically Jack Cafferty) for a three-hour-tour of what’s happening in the world.

The idea for the 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. (ET) show is an outgrowth of CNN’s free-flowing Election Night 2004 broadcast (right), where the network rented out room at the NASDAQ and set up giant screens behind the anchor desk. According to CNN executives, “The Situation Room” will showcase more transparent, less polished, less formal newsgathering and give people a greater sense of what’s happening in the world by taking them inside the process.

“It’s a different way to look at cable news churn,” CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman explained to us during an exclusive tour and interview Friday. Instead of the typical show, which runs like a packaged version of the evening news-complete with a beginning, middle, and an end-the Situation Room will focus raw news as it comes in. “This treats the day as not-yet-finished,” Bohrman says. “The plan is to be disrupted…. It’s almost news gathering on TV, not news production on TV.”

The show is the most technically complicated daily show ever produced, Bohrman says. To put it all together, CNN has assembled its top talent both on-air and off-air. The show will be produced in Washington, with Senior Executive Producer Sam Feist at the helm and directed by Howie Lutt, a former CNNer whom the network hired back from Fox Sports specifically for “The Situation Room.”

In what may be a first for television news, the show will use two control rooms: While one room will run the show, its correspondents, and live shots, the other fully-staffed room will actually just run the large screen behind Blitzer that serves as the focal point for “The Situation Room.”

In addition to monitoring and displaying dozens of live feeds from around the world, the show’s technicians have incorporated scrolling RSS headlines into the background (see photos above and below), and designed altered reality graphics that stretch to fit the giant screen when needed. The all-new graphics recall a Tom Clancy or Jerry Bruckheimer thriller, with lots of color, action, and movement.

Bohrman says that as the hours counted down to today’s premiere, the fear about the new show has been gradually replaced with the complexity of making it all happen. The staff has been practicing hours a day for weeks with barely a day off on the weekend, rehearsing the timing, graphics, choreography, camera placement, even Wolf Blitzer’s walk between sets. As staff danced around him, moving cameras, adjusting colors, screens, and interns and staff played the parts of correspondents in live shots, Wolf Blitzer finished one take late Friday afternoon and smiled: “I feel it all coming together.”

A Special Security Feature

Apropos of its name, “The Situation Room” will feature a heavy does of security news, starting with today’s premiere and an interview with Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Also today CNN has dispatched Kyra Phillips to Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, to report from the NORAD command center-one of the best known ‘situation rooms’ in the world, famously immortalized in the 1983 Matthew Broderick movie “Wargames.”

Overall the first hour of the show will draw heavily on CNN analysts and the still-new “America Bureau,” which in February brought together the network’s Justice, Homeland Security and national security beats into a coordinated unit.

Inside Politics

The show’s second hour will focus heavily on politics, since CNN people explain the legacy of “Inside Politics” has trained viewers to look for political information during that time period. It will include many of the former “Crossfire” hosts, although whether Bob Novak will ever reappear is very much up in the air after last week’s outburst.

The network’s “Inside the Blogs” segment will now feature web cam video conferences with bloggers around the world in addition to reporter Jacki Schechner and producer Abbi Tatton (Read their new CJR interview here).

The Situation Report

As part of the show, CNN is also launching “The Situation Report,” a “running log of dispatches, quotes, links and behind-the-scenes notes filed by the correspondents and producers of CNN’s Washington Bureau.” If we didn’t know better, we might even call it a “weblog.”

The Future of News?

The success of CNN’s new venture and its larger impact on television news (if any) obviously is very much up-in-the-air, but its significance within the network is clear: it’s the first show remade entirely in the vision of Bohrman and CNN/US President Jon Klein, who will be in the D.C. control room for today’s launch and a champagne celebration afterwards.

Their jobs may very well rest on the show’s ability to help boost CNN’s ratings and inspire the staff to greater feats of hard news journalism.

Don’t worry, though, no pressure.