Sky Box by Jay Rosen
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
When I was in Boston, at the Fleet Center, covering the last convention, I spent time in the mornings walking around the arena, before it filled with conventioneers. Looking at the space when it was empty made it easier to see how it worked when the red light was on. The more I studied the set-up --what they built at the Fleet Center to "hold" the convention--the clearer it got.
Look at the convention in sectional view. Imagine taking a big knife and slicing The Fleet Center in two from the top. When you look at the view exposed the building is in cross section. And there are levels to the convention, a vertical order.
Level One, at the bottom, is the convention floor, assigned to the delegates, who are seated by states. (It crawls with journalists too.)
Level Two is the podium, set on an enormous and expensive stage, and... directly across the way, on the arena's opposte side, the big bank of television cameras, clustered for the head-on shot, centered at mid-court.
Level Three: The print press have seats here, with bad views of the podium. Party VIP's have seats here, with good views. The Kerry Convention, trying to look even more like a giant television set, added seating directly behind the speaker to create a "studio audience." For the big speakers those seats were filled with cheering Democrats and an Oprah effect was created. Highly synthetic.
Level Four has the Network Sky Boxes, which I wrote about in the introduction and welcome post.
Studying this arrangement meant checking in at different times of day. Visit "the floor" during the evening when the convention is on, and no matter how close you get to the podium, in feet and inches, it always seems far away, the speaker somehow remote, the vibe traveling elsewhere, not at you. People on the floor may be listening to the podium, but the podium--and the convention program--is hardly ever listening to people on the floor.
The podium, on Level Two, talks to others on Level Two-- the cameras across the way, the directors backstage. Negotiating the floor during the event's peak hours, I constantly had the sensation that I was walking under a power line, or a bridge, and that a busy highway ran over us as we moved about.
In fact it was television and politics hooking up overhead, as the camera and the podium connected along sight lines worked out in advance. For the organizers, Level Two is where the convention happened for keeps. Two is the where the silent alchemy of politics went on, and where the money shots ("look, the party is united") were taken. On Two is where the event had to come into focus, or remain unfixed.
On Level Two a kind of live current was available between "convention" and "nation." That was the thinking built into the Fleet Center. This current ran across the arena, over the heads of the people at floor level. It was something transacted between the podium and the camera, which talked sense to one another .
The other Levels seem to know this. When you're a delegate you understand without being told that the convention is going on "above" you. Sitting in your section, you may try to pay attention to the program and its message. I did. But you soon get the sense that it's angled elsewhere, even though the speakers are, in the political fiction of the thing, addressing you and the people nearby.
Of course, it wasn't always so. There was a time when the mysteries of politics were transacted right there on Level One. Between the podium and the delegates ran the live current. For they were "the nation," or as near as the party could come to representing itself that way.
When television came along, it took the action up one level, and the people on the floor became a studio audience. The people at home were now the nation, looking in on what the Democrats or Republicans were up to. But who says that pattern--and its fictions--have to last? Now we have the Internet. It has information users more than it has an audience.
I may try it, just to see what response I get. I may slip into an elevator at Madison Square Garden and catch the eye of someone who looks to be in charge: "Excuse me, but could you perhaps tell me... What floor is the convention on?"
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