Live from Havana, it’s Miami’s cutthroat local TV news

CBS4 assistant news director Nicholas Bourne works with photographer Joaquin Garcia and anchor Eliott Rodriguez to edit video in Havana.
CBS4 assistant news director Nicholas Bourne works with photographer Joaquin Garcia and anchor Eliott Rodriguez to edit video in Havana.

It’s the iconic TV live shot from Havana: A linen-clad reporter, squinting from the sun, standing on a rooftop in front of the crystalline waters of the Caribbean. It looks breezy and exotic.

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To pull it off is anything but easy. Yet Miami’s local stations have become expert at it.

This has turned into the new measuring ground for South Florida’s fierce TV news competition: Cuba, the foreign country Miami considers a suburb of its own.

All four of Miami’s English-language network affiliates — WPLG-ABC 10, WSVN-FOX 7, WTVJ-NBC 6 and Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS 4 — have set up shop for the week to broadcast live from Havana for President Barack Obama’s once-in-a-century visit. (Miami Herald radio partner WLRN, 91.3-FM, has two correspondents in Cuba covering the visit.)

In Miami, Obama’s trip indisputably amounts to local news. Producing it, however, is nothing like the usual nightly report.

“It’s like working in any other foreign country — except there’s no Radio Shack or Walgreens,” quipped CBS4 anchor Eliott Rodriguez, who arrived Saturday for his second Cuba visit in recent months, and about 12th visit overall. “When something breaks down, like batteries, or you need cables, it’s really difficult.”

To bring everything from Miami, stations fill out form after form, often weeks in advance, to comply with government regulations. Cuba is especially sensitive to wireless microphones — standard TV hardware — presumably for fear they might be misused for spying. Satellite phones are similarly frowned on.

Most news crews are forced to rely on CNN and the Associated Press — the two news agencies with the biggest, permanent Havana footprint — to book time on their government-approved satellites. Local 10 shot Sunday from the Plaza de la Revolución, the site of AP’s video tent.

The cost is exorbitant. None of the stations divulged its Cuba travel budgets. But a single live shot from Havana, just in terms of satellite expense, might cost 20 times more than it does in the U.S. Obama's visit could comprise 50 live shots.

Still, things have gotten easier. Where it was once impossible to reach a reporter by phone from the studio, Sprint and Verizon now work in Havana, albeit charging an arm and a leg. Instant messaging apps keep stations and crews in touch.

The lack of publicly available Wi-Fi nevertheless ties crews to Havana’s international press center, set up by the government at the Habana Libre Hotel in the Vedado neighborhood. Nicholas Bourne, CBS 4’s assistant news director, oversaw a makeshift bureau there Sunday. Photographer Joaquin Garcia edited video from the Ladies in White protest.

Hours before President Barack Obama landed in Cuba, Cuban officials arrested some 50 protesters of a key dissidents group, the Ladies in White.

Anchor Rudabeh Shahbazi, making her debut Cuba trip, was in the field with photographer Rudy Marshall, who was once based here for CNN (“He’s like the mayor of Havana,” Rodriguez said).

Rodriguez had spoken to Berta Soler, the Ladies in White leader, and dissident Elizardo Sánchez — the sort of interviews a newscast hopes might distinguish it from rival networks. All try to outdo each other, despite the challenging logistics.

WSVN boasted its live Havana coverage began Thursday night, a day before the other three stations. “We’re the first ones,” said Lily Pardo, the station’s director of public relations and community affairs.

By Sunday, WSVN had seven people in Cuba, including anchor Craig Stevens. So did Local 10, which last year topped its competition by sending reporter Hatzel Vela — in Havana now to cover Obama — across Cuba, filing some 50 reports from coast to coast. For Obama, NBC 6 brought its two evening anchors, Jackie Nespral and Jawan Strader.

And when one crew learned a rival station would remain in town a few more days — through the Rolling Stones’ Havana concert

Friday — it reacted just as it would stateside.

The crew called Miami, and asked to stay.

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