DENVER (CBS4) - It's the Friday afternoon before Election Day, and 64 journalists at CBS4 are gathered on a Zoom call to review plans for the big night. There's a nervous energy.
"This is unlike anything we've ever done," Kristine Strain tells the group. Kristine is the Assistant News Director and leader of our election planning. She told me, "Planning election coverage in a pandemic has made me reflect on our purpose. With no ballrooms, no balloon drops, and no boisterous victory speeches what role do we play for our viewers? We are there to give results. We are there for analysis of the numbers as they roll in. We are there to explain what a yes or no vote on an amendment will mean going forward."
One thing hasn't changed: Election Night will involve hours of coverage presented on a variety of platforms. Kristine walks us through the plan -- special newscasts on CBS4, two updates every hour during CBS News coverage, continuous coverage on our streaming channel CBSN Denver, three hours of live coverage with our partner PBS12, and exclusive reporting for our website CBSDenver.com as well as our social media pages.
"Going in, the stakes are by far the highest I've faced," says Raetta Holdman, our election night producer. "From the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter and social justice rallies and protests we've seen, my anxiety is at 11." Holdman is a veteran CBS4 producer, she'll be in the control room for hours on election night juggling all this coverage. "2020 has taught me the importance of communication, especially patient communication where we must slow down a bit and really listen to make sure details are not being ignored," Raetta said. "Election Night is one of those times where the devil really is in the details, and the pandemic means there are so many more details we need to make sure we've addressed."
This year, we'll do it all while making the health and safety of our staff a top priority. There will be a limited number of people here at CBS4 -- and they'll be spaced out all over the building. One critical part of our election night plan will require the digital team to be entirely remote. CBSDenver.com will be one of the most popular places for people in Colorado and across the country to get local results and analysis -- and this year, every member of the team will work from their home.
"There's really nothing like being in a newsroom on Election Night," says Jesse Sarles, who leads our digital team. "There's always a buzz across CBS4's nerve center -- from the assignment desk on to the producers, anchors, digital team and directors -- when the polls close and results start trickling in for the local, state and national races." Jesse knows this year will be different, but the team is ready. "This year I and the rest of the digital team won't be feeling that adrenaline and excitement first-hand as we work remotely. But we'll be just as busy!" Jesse told me these last several months have prepared the digital team for this crucial and most unusual election night, "From our various homes, the content production team behind CBSDenver.com has done our best since March to keep Coloradans informed -- through the pandemic, through the protests, through the wildfires and snowstorms, and now we're well prepared to keep everyone updated about the final chapter of Campaign 2020."
Also working outside the building this year: our political analysts. For the first time, the analysts won't be in our studio -- they'll be across town in the studio at PBS12. Engineers have worked tirelessly to make sure we have a clean connection between the two studios and that everyone can talk to each other.
Dominic Dezzutti is Station Manager at PBS12. "Any crisis offers challenges and opportunities," Dominic said. "The same goes for partnerships on Election Night. Before COVID, setting up an entirely separate studio at another station for results analysis would not be practical. But in response to new procedures, utilizing two studios not only provides a way to keep a large team safer, but it also allows for our election partnership to flex its muscle and showcase both partners."
Still, it won't be quite the same. "I love politics, and really get energized for election night," says anchor Jim Benemann. "But I'll greatly miss having our political analysts in the studio with us during the evening. Mike Dino and Dick Wadhams really know the territory, and it's fun chatting with them about the vote-counting trends of the evening, even while we're not on the air. They also have great insights on big races happening across the country."
Election night will also be a different experience for me. For the first time in my career, I will not be in a TV control room on election night due to our Covid restrictions. Instead, engineers have installed a device at my desk so I can talk directly to the control room from my office.
I'm not sure our producers are thrilled about it, but I'm pleased that I'll still be able to stay connected to our production team on this important night.
The election planning meeting turns to our field crews. Normally, they would be located in big hotel ballrooms or convention center halls. This year, our "headquarters team" will be located in a second studio at CBS4. For 35 years, Kathy Walsh has reported from an election night watch party in Colorado. "Being there as a TV reporter means being caught up in the excitement, relaying what's happening as it's happening, and pushing for first crack at the most important interviews," Kathy said. "With no crowd, no conversation, and virtual celebrations or sadness, Election Night 2020 spent in the studio will be safe but subdued. It will be the strangest election night ever, but what isn't weird in 2020?"
It's a sentiment shared by anchor Karen Leigh. "This year, we're moving into unprecedented territory," Karen says. "How do you handle all the Zoom interviews and Facebook Lives? How do you social distance within your own station as you broadcast hour after hour? We'll see!"
All those virtual platforms require a great deal of coordination. So instead of managing logistics for remote locations, we're discussing Zoom, WebEx, Facebook Live, YouTube, Teams and more. Each platform comes with its own challenges, and the knowledge that it could crash at any time. "As a producer, I'm used to always having a backup plan and preparing for every possible scenario. This year that's impossible," says Robin Clutters, Executive Producer for CBSN Denver. "The pandemic has made election logistics so challenging, I have no idea what to expect. I think my new motto for this election and frankly all of 2020 is 'Expect the Unexpected' -- it's the only way to get through it!"
Andrea Flores says all of the uncertainty this year has actually prepared her for this unique election night. "For me, 2020 has been one of the most challenging, and exciting, years in my news career. It's been full of unknowns and curveballs, preparing me for the most memorable election year to date," Andrea says. "I am proud of our work at CBS4, and I'm looking forward to Election Day coverage with my trusted colleagues to bring our viewers the facts."
MORE: CBS4 Behind The Scenes
While there are many factors that will make this a wildly unconventional evening, we will all be following a predictable and rigid set of health and safety protocols. In our meeting, we talk about social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands -- and, importantly, how we'll do election night pizza in a pandemic.
After a lengthy discussion of all the safety protocols for the evening, CBSN anchor Kelly Werthmann breaks the tension, "What's the protocol for drinking tequila when this is all over?"
There's lots of anxious laughter as the meeting wraps up. Raetta gives us a final pep talk, "It will be very different," she says. "Be patient, be kind to each other, and we'll get through it together because we always do."
Election coverage Tuesday on CBSN Denver:
4 p.m. - Midnight Special Coverage
4 p.m.: CBS4 News
4:30pm: CBS Evening News
5pm-Midnight: CBS News Election Night
Results, Reaction and Analysis 24/7
for more features.