Jon Lender: An ad agency was hired to make Gov. Ned Lamont’s speeches into videos for broadcast in the pandemic. Is a Season 2 planned?

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Every year people fight through the hubbub of the state Capitol to hear the governor’s State of the State address on the General Assembly’s opening day in the packed House of Representatives chamber. In odd-numbered years they gather again, the following month, to hear the chief executive’s biennial budget speech.

But not this year — because so far in 2021 the COVID pandemic that exploded last March is still canceling in-the-flesh gatherings in confined spaces.

As a result, on Jan. 6, and again this past Wednesday, Gov. Ned Lamont didn’t make the traditional in-person presentations of his State of the State and budget speeches under the golden dome in Hartford, as he did in early 2019 and 2020.

Instead, his office contracted with Cronin — a private advertising firm in Glastonbury that already has been producing COVID-related TV public service announcements for the state since last year — to make polished videos of Lamont giving the two recent speeches at his Capitol office desk.

Cronin then delivered them to the state government channel, CT-N, for broadcast at their appointed times.

They were watched remotely by the official audience of state senators and representatives, along with interested listeners — such as lobbyists, who in normal years cram the Capitol hallways and strain to hear any words of opportunity or threat.

Two speeches for $79K

The price tags were $30,000 for the 15 1/4 u00bd-minute State of the State address on Jan. 6, and $49,000 for the 25 1/4 u00bd-minute budget speech, according to Lamont’s office.

The budget speech was drier and less elaborate visually, but its price was higher because time drives production costs (crew members are at the shoot longer and editors spend more time on the job), according to people involved.

The prices were negotiated with Cronin by Lamont’s office at a time when the governor’s emergency declaration has suspended normal bidding procedures.

The amounts irked House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, who blasted the governor Friday for “marketing himself with tax dollars.”

Lamont’s communications director, Max Reiss defended the videos as the best “way to clearly communicate with the people of Connecticut in a safe way” at a reasonable cost during a health crisis that has isolated many residents.

Their disagreement grew lengthy and heated — and there’ll be more on that later. But first, here’s a look at the unusual arrangements by which Lamont’s speeches were filmed, edited and delivered.

Filming and editing

The Democratic governor read each of his speeches from a teleprompter while a Cronin crew recorded the video and audio. Lamont didn’t go through them all in one take, for reasons including the need at times to pace his words with the appearance of a visual element.

The filming was done two days in advance of the Jan. 6 State of the State broadcast, and five days before the budget speech was broadcast last Wednesday, Feb. 10.

Cronin’s people used that lead time to edit the recorded footage by inserting videos, photos and graphics supplied by Lamont’s office. They played the speech for American Sign Language interpreter MarySue Owens at their Glastonbury studio, then recorded her as she interpreted it, and finally inserted a small video of her into the corner of the screen.

In the end, the marketing firm delivered a final version to CT-N that had the same kind of visual production values as the TV advertisements it specializes in.

Prominent among the visuals in the Jan. 6 speech was a drone’s-eye, aerial view (obtained from a TV news station) of a drive-thru event to feed hungry families at Rentschler Field in East Hartford. It appeared at the moment Lamont spoke of Connecticut citizens’ generosity and voluntarism.

Earlier in that speech, then President-elect Joe Biden was shown in a video clip introducing Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona as his his intended appointee for U.S secretary of education. Lamont proudly called Cardona “our very own.”

A video flashback

The Jan. 6 broadcast opened with a flashback device suggested by Cronin. It showed Lamont delivering his 2020 State of the State address in the House chamber, as governors have done forever.

“Thank you again for trusting me with this office and inviting me back into the hall, the room where it happens,” he said. That scene dissolved within a minute, and then Lamont was at his desk in 2021, beginning his new speech with: “Last year’s State of the State address seems like a long, long time ago.”

At the end of the speech, Lamont predicted that “we will rise above this crisis and build a better tomorrow.” As he said that, the screen showed happy young people in graduation gowns celebrating beneath a swarm of mortarboard caps they’d flung into the sky.

Cronin’s chief creative officer, Steve Wolfberg, said his firm “didn’t have anything to do with the actual script, and we had very little to do with the visuals that were chosen.” (Lamont’s office shipped Cronin every image and video, he said).

“But we’re storytellers [who] just wanted to help the story get told in a visual way, to take advantage of the medium,” Wolfberg said.

“I mean, if it weren’t for COVID, the governor would have been up there [at the Capitol] giving the speech as he normally does,” he said. “He couldn’t — so, given the opportunity, [we said] let’s make it as interesting as possible to people watching.”

“Showing that drone shot [of the drive-thru food distribution event in East Hartford] was so powerful, compared to just saying, ’We fed thousands of people in front of Rentschler,’ ” Wolfberg added. “People are visual, it’s a visual medium.”

“You stick a camera in front of somebody talking — well, okay. But are you really telling the story as well as you could? That’s where we helped.”

Spontaneity missing

One thing missing from Lamont’s video speeches — which the old-fashioned, live mob scenes at the Capitol have always provided — is spontaneity, such as immediate audience reaction to measure how the governor’s ideas are being received.

Although much of the applause on those occasions is partisan and predictable, there are still times when a specially written applause line falls flat — and even though you can’t always tell what that means, it’s interesting.

“It’s impossible to be spontaneous in a choreographed environment such as Lamont has put himself in with this,” said Richard Hanley, a Quinnipiac University journalism professor who has made documentary films. “It loses the personal nature of politics.” When the governor speaks in the Capitol, he’s in the House chamber with all members of the legislature, and “he can read the room. He can make asides, he can make funny remarks” directly to individual lawmakers, Hanley said.

“There are certainly benefits to the more traditional way of doing it,” Wolfberg said. “But, this probably in my mind, is the most interesting State of the State address I’ve ever watched. So what’s wrong with that?”

Reiss said the idea of the video productions arose as as the time for the speeches approached, and “the more we looked at it ... we felt this was the right way” for Lamont to reach out during a pandemic that has isolated many.

Asked if Lamont intends to continue with this approach, Reiss said “we very much want to be able to get back to normal next year” — live at the Capitol, that is.

Said Reiss: “I think we want that to be a goal” — that the pandemic subsides by then, and “we can be back in the House chamber, celebrating what it’s like to be back to normal ... with some of the traditional pomp and circumstance and ceremony.”

Candelora vs. Reiss

There’s one person who certainly would have preferred the “stick-a-camera-in-front-of-somebody” approach that Wolfberg characterized as lackluster — and that’s Candelora, the House Republican leader.

He said the visual enhancements and glossy production values were “completely unnecessary,” calling it “disgusting” to spend $79,000 on a pair of speeches at a time when so many Connecticut residents are suffering financially because of the pandemic.

“Historically, we’ve done it live, and it’s been free,” Candelora said. “I mean, if he needs 50 grand to give a budget speech, he should rethink what line of work he’s in.”

Now, here’s one thing about the issue of unnecessarily spending taxpayers’ money for self-promotion: The General Assembly’s four partisan caucuses — in both parties including Candelora’s own House Republicans — are well-known for publicly funded self-praise, as has been written here many times. For example, even though last year’s legislative session was cut short by the coronavirus, the four caucuses still spent about $900,000 on “informational” legislative-update mailings to constituents that often resemble campaign literature.

Candelora acknowledged some of the constituent mailings “are bad,” although he tries to make his own mailings “informational.” However, he said the constituent mail at least has gone through official deliberations over the years before being listed in the state budget. He said Lamont’s glossy speech productions weren’t budgeted, and it sets a bad precedent for the governor to unilaterally incur the expense.

The governor has unlimited opportunities to garner favorable, free publicity, Candelora said, pointing at Lamont’s continual media briefings. “And I take no issue with him putting a commercial on that encourages people” to wear masks or be vaccinated, he said, but the speech videos are too much.

Reiss responded: “Rep. Candelora leads a caucus filled with pandemic deniers, actively fighting common sense measures in the legislature and in court like requiring masks for children in school to protect their friends, teachers and families from COVID-19.”

“As a matter of fact, Rep. Candelora denies there being a public health emergency at all, and wouldn’t understand the historic nature of having to produce COVID-safe addresses to put forward policy proposals that he won’t vote for, like fighting climate change, keeping income tax rates flat, and supporting small business,” Reiss said.

Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant’s investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at jlender@courant.com, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, P.O. Box 569, Hartford, CT 06141-0569 and find him on Twitter @jonlender.

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