James Carville, live from his house. CNN screengrab. (CNN/ )
Of the many categories of waste in American politics, consider the resources that go into cable-TV live shots. Thousands of barrels of fossil fuel are expended hauling a person to where the cameras are or a camera to where the person is.
James Carville and Mary Matalin are examples of an apparently better way. A new cable-news luxury allows them to comment, live on CNN, whether the topic is exploding oil rigs or imploding candidacies, without ever leaving the splendor of their New Orleans homestead.
“We’d have to hire a crew in our Gulf Coast bureau every time,” said Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief. “These things take a lot of time and advance planning. It’s not something you can do on the spur of the moment.” Now he can, with the flip of a switch.
For professional political talkers, a cable-news contract used to be the ultimate. The residuals were limousine rides, paychecks, e-mails from names not heard from since homeroom. But D.C. greenrooms can feel stifling — a windowless, schmooze-or-be-schmoozed cell.
Sure, the power schlep is still a fun ride for some, but what if you could have the power without the schlep? So far, half a dozen on-air commentators are getting the upgrade of in-home cameras. This is just the beginning.
In the Carville-Matalin house, CNN’s team of techies mounted a smallish camera — called a Cisco link — that gets steered and focused by engineers in D.C. or Atlanta or Hong Kong or whichever CNN nerve center has booked either half of the power couple.
“This is an option that turns out to be cost-effective and also smart for the contributor and the network,” Feist said.
It’s also awesome, and “inexpressibly gratifying,” Matalin said in an e-mail. Then she found some words to express it: “For us personally, the system allows us to be available when CNN needs us without having to miss out on our kid’s many happenings.” On that day, for example, she had her daughter Matty’s induction into the National Honor Society to attend. And on that weekend, she had a school dance to chaperone. The work-family balance, thus, can finally teeter in the family direction.
“It eliminates travel time, set-up time and all the rigmarole that attends any segment, no matter how short,” she wrote. “Bottom line: I love love love Cisco.”
The opposites-attract back story of the Democrat and Republican strategists is seen here and there in their backdrop. His-and-her items include a speckled, white end table (Mary) and an autographed LSU football helmet (James). Bookshelves are stocked and curtains are drawn in their pundit cave. In many ways, it’s like the typical man cave, where a suburban dad could dial in rants to WFAN, except now the sport is politics and the analysis is more polite.
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Some pundits have a camera peering into a Harvard office (CNN’s David Gergen) or Philly radio studio (MSNBC’s Michael Smerconish). That’s too formal, with none of the same pundit-to-public intimacy — or pundit-to-pundit status differentials. When ranking perks, it’s only luxurious if the cameras allow the commentator to maintain proximity to a patch of green. And a bed. And a fridge — and not the green-room mini-fridge that holds all the diet Dr Peppers.
Cisco newcomer Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary, recently welcomed a CNN-paid crew to his house in Westchester County, N.Y. “Considering they invaded my property to build a studio, it was a smallish invasion with smallish equipment,” he said. In their wake, they left a little camera that “hibernates into one position,” some glaring lights, and a white X made of tape on the floor — his mark to stay in frame.
There are no Land-of-Oz pamperers on hand to bring the wizardry to life. “I have to figure out how to put in an earpiece, which is harder than it should be,” Fleischer said. “I have to figure out how to put a mike on my lapel, which is harder than it should be.” If help is required, Fleischer has made do with any available extra hand. “My seven-year-old daughter likes to put on the powder so my head doesn’t shine.” She needs to accomplish this early in the evening, he said, since a spot on “Anderson Cooper 360” is past her bedtime.
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MSNBC just provided a camera to Steve Schmidt, Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign manager, and Schmidt’s daughter is also learning how to apply the powder. Schmidt is finding that he can keep a connection to the Beltway that doesn’t interfere with a connection to the great outdoors — not unlike his on-again antagonist, Sarah Palin.
From the banks of Lake Lucille, Palin can digitally commune with Greta Van Susteren or Sean Hannity or any other Fox News host who books her. When the former Alaska governor was taping her reality show, the TLC cameras recorded the Fox News cameras recording her, thus crossing a new threshold.