Behind the scenes: How abc27’s news studio quickly becomes a debate studio

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Making a TV production look effortless takes a lot of effort.

And in no realm is that more true than the production of a political debate. It would be difficult under any circumstances. But in a studio full of busy live newscasts?

Well the good news is, “We’ve done this a couple of times,” said David J. Shiner, abc27’s senior director, who leads the production control room. (Shiner is being modest; it’s closer to a couple dozen than “a couple.”)

“There’s a little bit of repetition to it. We have a cadence and a rhythm that we’re going to follow,” Shiner said. “But each debate is always different. The issues are always different. The seats they’re running for are always different.”

  • Hours before the Pennsylvania 10th Congressional District Democratic Debate on March 6, 2024, the stage was already set abc27’s studio in Harrisburg.
    Hours before the Pennsylvania 10th Congressional District Democratic Debate on March 6, 2024, the stage was already set abc27’s studio in Harrisburg.
  • Hours before the Pennsylvania 10th Congressional District Democratic Debate on March 6, 2024, the stage was already set abc27’s studio in Harrisburg.
    Hours before the Pennsylvania 10th Congressional District Democratic Debate on March 6, 2024, the stage was already set abc27’s studio in Harrisburg.
  • Hours before the Pennsylvania 10th Congressional District Democratic Debate on March 6, 2024, the stage was already set abc27’s studio in Harrisburg.
    Hours before the Pennsylvania 10th Congressional District Democratic Debate on March 6, 2024, the stage was already set abc27’s studio in Harrisburg.

A big difference this time for the debate between Democrats hoping to compete in November against Congressman Scott Perry? The number of candidates: six, the most in memory for an abc27 debate. It won’t get the same international attention as the October 2022 debate in the same studio between Mehmet Oz and John Fetterman for a U.S. Senate seat — and, by extension, which party would control the Senate — but in a sense, this debate is more complex.

“The hardest part is just getting to know all these candidates and making sure you know who you’re ‘taking’ when they’re asking the questions,” Shiner said. (“Taking” is director jargon for putting a camera’s view on live TV.)

A hard part every time is having to completely transform the studio from one that hosts live newscasts throughout the day to a debate studio — but without interrupting the newscasts. Engineers and production crew (documented in stop-motion, overhead video) swarmed in after Good Day PA signed off at 11 a.m. and folded up that show’s set, replacing it with the debate set — but just as suddenly pausing for an hour while abc27 News at Noon aired, with viewers unaware of the activity surrounding the news team’s temporarily-shrunken corner of the studio.

Pennsylvania 10th Congressional District Democratic Primary Debate

While the production team put the final technical touches on the debate, the debate editorial team finalized what’s known as the “content” — most specifically, the questions — behind closed doors. The integrity of a debate depends on no one outside that room knowing what’s discussed by the small group inside the room, who don’t reveal to anyone — not even to their co-workers or families — what’s discussed. (The leaking of debate questions in a higher-profile Democratic primary debate was once a national scandal.)

Once it’s all finished, the production crew has to just as quickly transform the studio back to a fully-functioning news studio — and then do it all over again and again for a series of subsequent debates throughout 2024.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to ABC27.