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Debate Puts UT in National Spotlight

Published: November 29, 2007
As University of Tampa students bustled to and from classes Wednesday afternoon, some were surprised to find themselves in the background of a national TV broadcast.

The students looked on curiously as cameras rolled outside UT’s Plant Hall and CNN news anchor Erica Hill told how the University would play a major role in the Republican presidential debate in St. Petersburg later that evening.

The debate, Hill explained, would be watched by a focus group of 24 undecided Republican voters – 12 men and 12 women – who would use electronic ballot devices to periodically declare their opinion of what the candidates had to say. The real-time results of the balloting would appear in the form of a scrolling graph as the debate was broadcast live on CNN’s Headline News channel.

All of it, including a subsequent live interview with the focus group, later took place inside Fletcher Lounge in Plant Hall, thrusting the UT community into the national spotlight. 

“It’s a very beautiful school,” said Craig Broffman, a producer from CNN’s Washington D.C. bureau, who coordinated the focus group broadcast. “Obviously, the architecture and history here made it very captivating visually. It just felt right for what we wanted to do.”

CNN producers first set out to find a location to host the focus group about three weeks before the debate, Broffman said. The idea was to assemble the group at a college or university in a city near where the debate would take place.

After meeting with UT administrators and touring Plant Hall as well as the ninth floor of the Vaughn Center and other areas of campus, producers decided that the colors, historic architecture and wide range of space inside Fletcher Lounge would be ideal for the focus group, Broffman said.

As crews arrived early Wednesday to begin transforming the Lounge into a makeshift TV studio – complete with numerous video cameras, microphone booms, lights, camera dollies, stages, mixing boards and plasma TVs – UT senior Tara Parian stood in the middle of the project. Parian, a film and media arts major, was hired by CNN to work for the day as a production assistant.

“I’m trying to learn as much as I can, even if it’s just through watching other people,” Parian said.

Parian, along with other student volunteers, spent the day helping the crew in various ways, including acting as a source of information about the UT campus as well as helping instruct the focus group when and how to use the polling devices.

“You never know who you could meet here,” Parian said, adding that the experience was a good way to develop professional contacts.