In Depth

ABC Has Signs of the Times

Election Night Will Play Out on Screens Across Times Square

New York City’s Times Square usually is known as the crossroads of the world, but on Nov. 4 it will be Election Central.

ABC News is going big-screen on Election Night with multiple data feeds tailored for the eye-catching video signs on the Reuters building and the Nasdaq building, as well as the headline-filled ribbons on the “Good Morning America” studio that overlooks Times Square.

In addition, the outsized “monitor” on the “GMA” sign will let crowds on the street watch the network’s Election Night broadcast—complete with national commercials—co-anchored by Charles Gibson, George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer from the “GMA” studio upstairs.

On the concrete island where Broadway and Seventh Avenue diverge, “GMA Weekend” anchor Bill Weir will spend the evening interviewing people on the street for the network’s broadcast.

“Part of every election, particularly presidentials, is razzle-dazzle. There’s part of it that, obviously, is very substantive,” ABC News President David Westin said about the Election Night effort. “The basic idea is a fairly simple one but one that sometimes can get lost. Every election, particularly every presidential election, is equal parts about the candidates and about the people who are electing them. The Times Square approach is a way of encapsulating that. It’s a way of going to the people, the real people on the street, and involving them in the coverage.”

The complicated plan for the Times Square display was in the works well before ABC News chalked up impressive ratings wins on three of the four widely watched candidate faceoffs staged by the Commission on Presidential Debates. But it’s primed to play to an electorate that has been intensely engaged in the twists and turns of a historic campaign.

“For over a year now there has been a level of interest that we thought would taper off, but it never did. It has been a very exciting story,” Mr. Westin said.

Towering over the south end of Times Square, on the building millions see when the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, is the Astrovision video screen that will carry Fox News Channel’s election coverage. Mr. Westin said catching a glimpse of Fox during a Weir segment “would not bother me,” but camera angles will be left to the director.

CBS News has made no plans for spotlighting its election broadcast outdoors. NBC and MSNBC will project the electoral map of the United States on the iconic ice rink in Rockefeller Plaza.

For months, ABC Special Projects VP Roger Goodman and a team that includes ABC News creative director Hal Aronow-Theil, graphics operations director Tamar Gargle and graphics technology producer Adam Cooper have been planning, purchasing, testing and tweaking.

“We’re actually programming for six different [display] elements,” Ms. Gargle said.

To do that required assembling equipment purchased from multiple vendors and the assembly of a separate graphics facility at ABC’s Upper West Side headquarters. (Only weather graphics originate from the Times Square studio during “GMA.”)

Crunching Numbers

Voting data will take a circuitous path after it comes in to ABC News through the “Vote ’08” system, where it will be scrutinized by the decision desk that controls when state-by-state calls are made, and then into a centralized database before it is directed back out to the assorted platforms on which it will be displayed.

One goal was to have visual consistency, from on-air to on-Nasdaq, on-Reuters and on-“GMA” signs. After middle-of-the-night tests shot in high definition—always using zeros and no pretend state projections to guard against any misunderstandings about ABC’s objectivity and to prevent test data from accidentally showing up on the big night—colors and font sizes were adjusted to match the broadcast.

“We went to great lengths,” Mr. Aronow-Theil said. “We wanted to make sure it looked cohesive.”

Mr. Cooper likened it to the Olympics, when new technology and whiz-bang applications are harnessed to capitalize on making the data enhance the development of the story.

“What’s important to us is the editorial information,” Mr. Cooper said. “Our competitors go for art.”

The Election Night display has not come cheap, and it will make its debut as ABC News and the network and other divisions that report to Disney-ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney are being told of new cost-cutting measures ranging from a ban on non-scheduled overtime that has not been pre-approved and the end of newspaper delivery to the cancellation of holiday parties and non-news or non-critical business travel.

Mr. Westin said the point of the new belt-tightening measures revealed last week is to ensure that divisions are able to invest in big events that can “make a difference” during challenging times.

In addition, the news executive said, the investment in the Election Night Times Square display “is something that we will be able to use other places. We have thought about that consciously as we have made these investments: What’s the longer-term use for this?”