Behind the Scenes of the CBS DNC Debate

Posted: November 18, 2015 | By: Iowa Caucus Project Staff Tagged: Blog

The Nov. 14 DNC debate drew a viewership of more than  8.5 million people. That number is an integral result of the planning of the debate. The preparations for the set of the CBS Debate were months in the making prior to the set ever being seen by any public audience. Scenic designer Joe Tenga was just one of approximately 130 CBS staff working on various aspects of the debate from live production to set design to the vetting of questions.

Joe Tenga, scenic designer:

Scenic Designer Joe Tenga measures debate blueprints Photo by Skylar Borchardt

Scenic designer Joe Tenga measures debate stage blueprints. Photo by Skylar Borchardt.

Tenga came to Drake University to measure Sheslow Auditorium in September in order to begin the set design. There were no electronic blue prints that exist of Sheslow, so Tenga felt it would be best to measure it himself. “I know what I produce, and I wanted to see it for myself. After that, it took me about a week or two to have the first design to our director,” he said. Tenga also designed the set for the 2012 CBS Republican Debate in Spartanburg, South Carolina, but had a more difficult time having to fill space for eight candidates and a stage double the size of Sheslow. Furthermore, he will be using some of the same set pieces for the Republican CBS Debate held in February in South Carolina. “I am always constricted by budget, so having the dual debate allowed me to spend a little more on set pieces knowing I could use them twice,” Tenga said.

Originally studying political science at SUNY-Binghamton, Tenga enjoys working with debate sets but admitted his set design on “Maid in Manhattan” was one of his favorite jobs. “I could list of dozens of actors, musicians, politicians, and journalists I’ve had the privilege of working with. There is always something new and predictable with my job,” Tenga noted. “The Amazing Spider-Man” contained set design from Tenga, who admitted the feature film used about the same amount of staff for the entire film as the two-hour live debate did. Tenga has also worked on shows such as Good Wife and Person of Interest and has been a set designer for the new live-streaming platform of CBS, CBSN.

Monitors being set up for CBS Democratic Debate Photo by Skylar Borchardt

Monitors being set up for CBS Democratic Debate.Photo by Skylar Borchardt.

The set itself:

Tenga drew up blueprints of Sheslow and began work for the debate set on his computer program, which provides camera angles, audience views, and close-ups of the candidates. “My goal is for when the director tells the cameramen ‘go’ to have every viewer at home focus on the candidates,” Tenga said. In order to attract as many eyes as possible, a large read “header” was placed directly above the candidates. The set was originally designed for five candidates, but after Jim Webb and Lincoln Chaffee dropped out of the Democratic race, the podium locations were placed further apart. “It ended up being a positive. Candidates want to be more than arm’s length apart so they aren’t interfering with one beside them,” Tenga explained.

Final set preparations Photo by Skylar Borchardt

CBS staff make final set preparations. Photo by Skylar Borchardt.

The set contained five 98-inch monitors (yes, I would love to watch football on one of them). The monitors were coupled with LED light panels with diffusing screens in front of them in order to not blur when the camera was focused closely. One of the biggest struggles for Tenga and CBS while designing the set at Drake was Sheslow itself. By the nature of being an auditorium, there were no trusses, so CBS needed to come in and build up the trusses in order to hang the monitors and curtains. The monitors showcased red, white and blue stars throughout the debate as well as the CBS and other debate partners’ branding. “This set is a hybrid of actual set pieces and graphics displayed on the monitors. When I first got into set design, everything would have been built up for the set. Technology has not only changed the production standpoint of the debate, but even the aesthetics of the set,” Tenga noted. CBS hit a snag with set up as the truck delivering the set pieces arrived late. Set up began the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 10, and the set had a media walk-through on Friday, Nov. 13. Check out the timelapse of Sheslow being transformed by the debate set.

Tenga had heavy coordination between Twitter, the Democratic National Committee, and CBS executives in order to build a unique set for the second democratic debate. The debate itself had nine camera angles showcasing the audience, the moderators, and the candidates. I can say for sure, Sheslow is nearly unrecognizable when the entire set was up.

IMG_1494Borchardt is a junior studying political science and law, politics, and society from Litchfield, Minnesota. This summer he interned in the office of U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) and was the recipient of the Harkin Institute D.C. Experience Scholarship. He enjoys politics, Minnesota sports and playing his guitar. Follow him on Twitter.