How Scott Pelley Made It to Cuba Just in Time for ‘The CBS Evening News’

By Mark Joyella 

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Screen Shot 2014-12-17 at 7.24.46 PMThey gambled, and it paid off. On the day President Obama announced he would move forward with talks aimed at normalizing relations with Cuba, “CBS Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley stunned many observers when he appeared–looking crisp in a suit and tie–in Havana, the only evening news anchor on the island Wednesday night. “Everyone is so happy here,” said one CBS News insider about the hectic hours of work by dozens of “Evening News” staffers to make that liveshot happen.

On air, Pelley may have made it look effortless, but it wasn’t. Not at all. The decision to go for it was made shortly after the Cuba story broke. CBS execs decided it was worth the risk of having Pelley absent from the newscast on a major news day–Norah O’Donnell was slated to fill-in on the anchor desk in New York–for the chance to make a bold statement by having Pelley in place in Cuba.

Pelley started the day in Washington, where he attended last night’s White House media holiday party. Once the decision was made, Pelley and his team scrambled and headed directly to the airport.

In New York and Havana, producers, coordinators and fixers worked through the day to make sure that if Pelley’s travel went as hoped–entering the country is hardly without unexpected problems–there would be a live location waiting for him. The best case scenario was that Pelley would land, drive to the camera, mic up and go live.

At 6:22 p.m. ET, Pelley tweeted he’d “just landed” in Havana:

Of course, Pelley’s flight was on the ground before 6:22–but not that much earlier. The ride from the airport to the balcony where Pelley appeared on the “Evening News” was gently described to TVNewser as “a mad dash.” But by 6:41 p.m., there he was. “Good evening, Norah. It is a beautiful and blustery night here in Havana.”

For the show’s producers and technical team, it was one of those liveshots that produces instantaneous newsroom applause merely for happening–just the way they hoped it would.