Director Steve Pennie captures CBC’s election coverage step-by-step, from the drop of the writ till the lights go out election night. 

Director Steve Pennie captures
CBC’s election coverage step-by-step, from the
drop of the writ till the lights go out election night.

Ah,
election night in Canada—the closest thing that CBC News has to the Stanley Cup
game seven.

Two
distinct teams pull election coverage together in a newsroom: editorial and
production. When the writ gets dropped, editorial goes into overdrive. A war
room is created to manage the movement and content from all the political
camps. Reporters are assigned their duties and meetings are held to brainstorm
fresh ways to tell the stories that come out of the campaign.

Production
starts to roll out the new “Canada Votes” animations and music. (It’s a
blessing the campaign is only 5 weeks long because both the animation and music
are used so often that they begin to haunt you in your sleep).

The
decision has to be made early on as to where the election night special will be
physically located. A couple of votes ago, the halls of Parliament were
transformed into a fitting set. Peter Mansbridge walked the corridors giving
the nation a history lesson while waiting for the results to pour in. To me,
there is no finer setting for such a night but it takes money to put on a show
like that and money is hard to find these days.

For
this year’s go around it was decided to use existing CBC studio space that was
redesigned a little over a year ago. Problem was that the studio is live on air
with 14 hours of programming a day.

All
the shows currently coming from studio 50 in Toronto had to relocate for two
weeks so that the election night set could be constructed. A massive
reorganization of the production facilities was implemented to free up the
space. I was asked to join the production team to oversee this transformation.

To
keep costs down we utilized existing set pieces like the large projector
screens and monitors. Set walls were modified to provide peepholes for cameras
to shoot Peter talking to experts and guests. New desks were constructed to
accommodate the featured reporters and the panels of experts.

For
a director, your number one priority is making your host look good. In a
special like this, the host can have anywhere from 10-15 speaking positions.
Each one needs to be lit perfectly and have a flattering background. Thirteen
cameras were assigned to cover 11 studio guests. New technology in the form of
touch screens that could display charts, facts, and figures were brought in.

Three
control rooms and numerous network coordination studios are also needed to pull
this night off. One control room handles the local inserts that get cut into
the national broadcast. A second control room is used as a set up studio and
feeder pool for the myriad of live locations used during the show. The monitor
wall there is lit up with sources from coast to coast, as reporters stand by
and suggest guests to “live” producers who will pass them on to the main
control room.

That
control room, studio 40, sits on the top floor of the Broadcast Centre—six
floors above the studio where Peter and company discuss the stories of the
night. Studio 40 is literally THE control room.  This is the hive where all the important decisions are made.
Experts fill the back deck with computers and phones and intercoms relaying
results the second they come in.

A
senior producer is charged with doing the math and getting it right before any
declarations of elected or defeated, minority or majority can be made. The
front deck is filled with the usual television personnel.

The
chief news director for the CBC calls the shots—surrounded by the best
technicians the corporation has to offer. Everything is rehearsed for three
days running and once we’re on air it rolls out like clockwork. The only
variable is what the vote will reveal and what stories will come to light over
the seven to eight hours the special will run.

In
the middle of the hive is the one person who holds the reigns of this galloping
thoroughbred. The executive producer stands right behind the director and is
armed with a special intercom that allows him to talk to all the players.

Once
the polls start to close, it’s his show to call. There is no fixed lineup, just
a fluid wave of information that starts to roll in from the Maritimes and picks
up speed as it crosses the country. The executive producer is constantly
updating the director and host as to where we are going next. “Over to Diana
with the Maritimes’ results.” “Next to Evan with a look at vote share and then
line one for Lynn in Montreal.”

And
so it unfolds. Numbers crunched, predictions made and confirmed. Hours roll by
and region after region join the show as polls close. The little ticker at the
bottom of the screen ceaselessly adds the seat count.

After
about five hours into the show the majority of votes have been counted and the
show goes into summary and analysis mode. The Conservatives have their
majority, the NDP and Green make history, and the Liberals and Bloq are
decimated. There is a palatable drop in energy as the pundits fill airtime
until the winners and losers come out to speak. Then, once that’s done, its
goodnight Canada, bring in the music, and fade to black.

Everyone
shakes hands and kudos are handed out. The control room breathes a collective
sigh of relief and slowly goes dark as the monitors and electronics get shut
down. Another in a long history of CBC election nights is done.

Steve Pennie has worked at the CBC for 25 years, for the last 11 as a director. He currently works on Connect with Mark Kelly and The National.

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