Please remain in your seats and turn off all cell phones and pagers. Photographs are allowed before or after the show, but there will be no flash photography at any time.
Applause, applause, applause!
And so begins another edition of CNN’s “Crossfire,” which began filming from GW’s Media and Public Affairs building five nights a week April 1. The show, known for its heated political debate between hosts from the right and left, also recently switched from a half-hour discussion on one issue to an hour-long, multi-topic format with several new segments. These changes, producers said, have made “Crossfire” ratings soar.
Before the show begins, “Crossfire” coordinating producer Heather Clapp invites the audience to participate by clapping and cheering but reminds the crowd to “draw the line at booing.” And keep in mind, she
says, the best faces are the ones that get on television.
Ten minutes before the 7 p.m. airtime, hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala stroll out onstage, as crewmembers scurry around fixing microphones and bringing coffee. Carlson, from the right this evening, and Begala, from the left, joke with the audience amid shouts of “one minute!”
Backstage, inside a truck parked in MPA loading dock, executive producer Sam Feist is on the phone with CNN headquarters in Atlanta.
Right now, there seems to be a problem with a sound byte coming off the main server, and Feist lets Begala know through a headset that it will be cut out of his intro.
The truck, where Feist quickly points out “everything is on the record except the four-letter words,” is where he and Director Howie Lutt coordinate six cameras through 27 large and small monitors.
On this particular evening, June 5, the show cuts right to a press conference about a missing girl in Salt Lake City.
“We always take the news first,” Feist explains.
But now that segment of the show is beyond its allotted two minutes and 30 seconds, and Feist and Senior Producer Kristy Schantz start rearranging the computerized script, which appears directly on teleprompters in front of the hosts.
“Think about killing ‘Crossfire’ News Alert and a whole set of commercials,” Feist says, as the missing girl’s father is shown crying on the monitor that actually shows what is on the air. He talks in minutes, controlling everything from the speed of the teleprompters to which camera angle is best.
At 7:13, booker Debbie Berger comes through Feist’s walkie-talkie saying the “Boston guest” had not arrived yet. The show was set to host Boston Phoenix Publisher Stephen Mindich to defend the newspaper’s decision to post a video made by Daniel Pearl’s killers on its Web site, which both Begala and Carlson, in a rare moment of agreement, thought was wrong.
The producers begin to plan what to do if Mindich doesn’t show.
“‘Crossfire’ News Alert!” Schantz says.
Meanwhile, on stage, the hosts and guest Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, are talking with Representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) via satellite from outside the White House.
“Camera 6! Camera 6!” Lutt shouts as the audience reacts to a comment Ibish makes to the congressman.
Feist turns and says, in an explanatory tone, “Multitasking.”
Suddenly, Feist gets word from Atlanta that Israeli troops are storming Yasser Arafat’s compound.
“Do not let Hussein Ibish off the stage for a minute,” he instructs Carlson and Begala. Also on that day’s list of guests happens to be Cliff May, a Republican strategist and Israel supporter.
At 7:22, Feist scraps the script and calls for a spontaneous reaction segment, with live CNN footage from Jerusalem.
While the home viewing audience watches breaking news footage from CNN, hosts and producers argue over switching seats and scramble to get the right graphics on screen.
“It’s not a regular ‘Crossfire,’ this is just a fun little discussion,” Feist barks into his headset.
“This (footage) is annoyingly long,” he says under his breath, as he rewrites the show’s script to give context to the attacks, which followed a suicide bombing that killed 17 Israelis with a kilogram of explosives that
“How much is a kilogram again?” Carlson jokes onstage, still invisible to TV viewers. “I hate the metric system.”
Next, the picture on air switches to what producers call the “big-box, little-box” format, with a small shot of who’s talking on the show over a larger view of the Jerusalem night.
Feist is now dictating a script to Carlson as gunfire is heard on the scene.
At 7:46, Feist makes the decision to go with this segment for the rest of the hour. He notifies Berger to deal with the other guests.
A few minutes later the Jerusalem scene goes black.
“It’s okay, it looks like the world is falling apart,” Feist says. “I don’t care, it’s cool. Live television doesn’t have to be perfect.”
He begins to call for questions from the audience related to the Israeli conflict. Staffers in the audience respond, and begin reading him a question. Feist cuts them off, saying “Okay, get it ready.”
With 10 seconds, Feist directs everyone to wrap it up.
“We gotta go,” he says. “Show the applause before they break away!”
And they do.