Tuned In

Obama's Stadium Show

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While I was catching up after vacation, word came out that Barack Obama’s campaign had shifted plans and would hold his nomination-acceptance speech not indoors in Denver but in the Broncos’ 76,000-seat stadium. In the TV press, of course, the main burning question was: how will this affect the news producers?

A few thoughts after the jump:

* The networks, who have already begun planning their multimillion-dollar coverage of the conventions, may grumble about having to set up at a second location, but in the end they’ll probably be glad to inconvenience themselves. For once in a long while, this campaign has actually been ratings gold, and making the DNC’s climax more dramatic will only help them.

* Speaking of drama: one could make the argument that enlarging the venue will only heighten expectations for Obama. (Whom, standard disclosure, I voted for.) New York magazine has made the argument that Obama is in a double bind: if he doesn’t deliver rhetorical fireworks, he’ll be seen as choking, yet a too-soaring speech may actually alienate some voters by making him look as if he’s all showy talk. Mmmmmyeah, I guess. But you know what? It’s the presidential election. The stakes are kinda gonna be high anyway. I suspect this is a briar patch the Obama campaign does not mind being thrown into, particularly after John McCain’s moment in the lime (green) light.

* The Obama campaign has stimulated a lot of discussion about whether elections nowadays are won on the Internet or on TV. Their answer, evidently, is both. Clearly for all the social-networking and fundraising the campaign has done online, here they’re banking on the “optics”—to use one of the overused phrases of the moment—of the big speech playing out before an audience of millions, some just starting to pay attention.

* So the big question is: what do those visuals need to convey? I mean, yes, there are substantive messages to impart, important issues to be resolved in this election, etc., etc. But you can’t tell me that the Obama camp’s decision to take the show al fresco is not mainly about the intangibles. People get offended when you use the term “rock star” in connection with Obama—his opponents because it sounds like more media swooning, his supporters because it seems to trivialize him—but if you’re setting up a stadium show, face it: there is some part of you that wants to be perceived as a rock star.

Which is not the same as saying you want to be an entertainer. In fact, the stadium setting is probably really more about the perception of Obama’s audience rather than that of the candidate. The image of tens of thousands of people—non-convention delegates, thronging to get in—reinforces one of the most important intangibles that Obama has going for him: that he is the big thing going on in the culture right now, the thing that other people are excited about, the thing that, therefore, you become curious to check out. Obama right now—and I know this too is something his supporters and detractors alike will hate, but there it is—occupies a space in the culture right now usually reserved for entertainment phenomena: he is, like a hit movie or a runaway summer TV phenomenon, That Thing People Are Talking About. He is a buzzword, he is a pop-culture omnipresence, he is watercooler.

This is not necessarily a positive force and it’s not necessarily a negative force. But it is a force. Stadiums, as we have seen over and over in concerts and sports events, are as much about the spectacle of the people watching as the spectacle that they are watching; they are about marshaling the emotive and visual power of thousands of people feeling and doing something all at once. That’s why stadiums gave birth to phenomena like the wave. And if someone has the chance to generate that kind of wave before an audience of millions, you can’t blame him for trying to ride it.

Update: CMR asks the excellent question, “What if it rains?” and I thought I’d add my response here:

I meant to mention this in the post. The Obama camp has said they will give the speech rain or shine. In fact, if I were them, I might well pray for rain. The pathetic fallacy works for you with rain: the scene/performance in a rainstorm is a powerful emotional cue we know well from everything from King Lear to concert films to movie scenes where the hero chases down the heroine in the rain and tells her he really loves her. I mean, maybe you don’t want a hurricane, but some photogenic torrents streaming down on your candidate and 75,000 rapt listeners braving the elements? If I’m his campaign manager, yeah, I’m probably willing to suffer that.

Update 2: For instance, rain at an outdoor venue in Colorado did not exactly undermine this performance (almost exactly 25 years ago).