August 18th, 2012
WJAR, the Media General NBC affiliate in Providence, scored big ratings during the Olympics – using all their media platforms. Then, they caught wind that a local Olympics hero – Elizabeth Beisel – winner of two medals – was heading home before the closing ceremonies. WJAR decided to own this exciting moment but they’d have to beat the clock at every turn to pull it off.
They planned – and pulled together – a full-fledged rally at Beisel’s former high school in less than a week. The rally included a live TV program, local and national dignitaries, bronze and silver balloons, signs and banners, music and food. They’d originally planned to use the school gym – which held about 300. But when they called for permission, school officials said they felt the station was grossly underestimating the scope of what they were planning – and suggested they use the football field with its grandstand which held 2,000.
WJAR news director Chris Lanni says he quickly saw that this had become a statewide event for Rhode Island when his phone started ringing off the hook from politicians wanting to be part of the big homecoming. The VIPs soon included the Lt. Governor, a U.S. Congressman, the school superintendent, the town manager and a host of other dignitaries.
The station scoped out the site, planned camera positions, sound systems, and set up a VIP tent – branded with the NBC10 logo, as well as a 30-foot blowup NBC Peacock as the stage background with the NBC10 logo looming as a huge presence behind the speakers. They also invited a group that had raised $15,000 for Beisel’s Olympic expenses by selling t-shirts to attend and present the check.
While all that planning and execution was jammed into less than a week – the most difficult hurdle was yet to come. The program was going to be live on WJAR television (and streamed on their website) beginning at 7:30 p.m. They had to be off the air by 8 p.m. sharp – as NBC Olympics coverage would begin in primetime. The problem with this tight timing: Beisel’s flight was not scheduled to land at the Providence airport until 6:47 p.m. They wanted her to arrive at the rally at 7:40 – giving them 53 minutes from touchdown to her appearance. The high school is 25 minutes from the airport!
To complicate the tight schedule, Beisel’s family wanted to have a quick, private reunion at the airport. They were allowed 8 minutes in an airport boardroom because every second counted. WJAR arranged for airport police to escort her off the plane, and through private hallways to the boardroom. Meanwhile other security rushed her luggage (and two medals) out of the belly of the plane to the waiting limo. State police were standing by to escort the limo to the stadium.
Meanwhile at the high school stadium, the 2,000 seats were being jammed to capacity. Many people had arrived early for some tailgating. It was a festive gathering with many fans wearing Beisel t-shirts and waving homemade signs. Back at the airport, Beisel called an audible that almost caused a heart attack for Lanni and his troops. She veered into a restroom to freshen up and change clothes. Before she re-emerged ten precious minutes had elapsed!
There was also another element to plan: That was keeping the other media – who had all gathered at the airport – away from WJAR’s prized guest of honor. They used a “decoy” limo to put them off the scent – as well as private hallways at the airport to whisk her into the real limo – sight unseen by the competition.
NBC10 longtime sports director Frank Carpano emceed the live event as it kicked off at 7:30 p.m. Frank had a special connection with Beisel and her family. During the broadcast he played an interview he’d done with her when she was a special 9 year-old athlete. WJAR had a live “chase car” camera showing Beisel’s limo approaching the field.
Amazingly, the limo arrived right on time at 7:40. The plan was to have Beisel speak at 7:53 before they had to sign off for the Olympics. Then the Olympic athlete called another audible that really turned out to be an inspiring part of the broadcast. As she walked in, with WJAR using backpack technology to show her view of the crowd, Elizabeth ran over to the front row of the grandstands to hug and greet old classmates and family members. This lasted 5 minutes – but was great television – as Frank remained silent – and the cameras followed her. Microphones caught the sounds of these emotional greetings.
Finally Beisel hopped on stage and talked with Frank and the TV audience. As 8 p.m. loomed, Frank signed off the over the air broadcast, and invited the audience to join the online streaming of the event. There were high fives all around from the many WJAR troops involved in this great event that they clearly owned from beginning to end.
The audience was also excited. The half hour program scored a 9.6 household rating – WJAR’s highest rated local program for the day.