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News Set Makeovers Simple or Spectacular

Dec 20, 2004  •  Post A Comment

As local stations add newscasts, shuffle anchors, become part of duopolies and add ever more eye-catching graphics, it’s inevitable that their news sets change too. In fact, most stations update their sets every few years.

As part of that regular cycle of change, stations including Fox-owned WFXT-TV in Boston, Viacom’s KTVT-TV in Dallas and WBBM-TV in Chicago and NBC affiliate WTSM-TV in El Paso, Texas, recently have undergone set revisions. They are just some of the current crop of stations with revamped looks, and while each set is a little different, they do share some common threads.

Many news sets today incorporate plasma televisions, in part because they are visually stunning but also because they introduce flexibility by providing pictures of different locations as backdrops for anchors. That helps, since many anchors will stand up or move around during the newscast to keep viewers interested. Local broadcasters also continue to rely on more traditional design elements and find ways to weave in skylines of their markets and showcase their anchors.

Fox-owned WFXT-TV in Boston is a testament to the plasma trend. The station introduced a new two-story set a year ago that includes two towers containing 22 plasma screens. The towers help pull together the first and second floors of the set and the building itself, said Susan Pascal-Brickley, VP of creative services for the station.

Despite its size, the set is simple, with a round blue anchor desk in the center and red lighting on the floor. The set rotates 360 degrees, allowing for a different background for each of the newscasts. “For us [the look] was clean and bright and very much this is the future of local news,” Ms. Pascal-Brickley said.

The set design was done in-house. WFXT would not disclose the total cost, but said each plasma screen cost about $6,000.

In Dallas, CBS station KTVT’s new set also has the flat-panel plasma screens. “I think what you are seeing more of now is we use plasma screens for over-the-shoulder and for stand-ups for reporters,” said Steve Mauldin, president and general manager of the Viacom Southwest region.

Mr. Mauldin also served as general manager of Viacom’s CBS station WFOR-TV in Miami when three years ago it added plasma screens, which were used during newscasts to showcase videos of bridges in Miami’s South Beach district to convey the feel of the place. The WFOR set also incorporated the colors of the Miami Dolphins football team and the ocean, sunsets and sunrises, he said.

At KTVT, the new set is designed to reflect the warmth of Texas and the city of Dallas, he said. “One of the most recognizable ingredients that goes into architecture [in Texas] is Austin Stone, a limestone from the Austin area,” he said. The stone is included in the new KTVT set. “It looks like Texas,” he said.

The flat-panel projection screen trend began a few years ago as plasma screen TVs became more affordable, said Dan Devlin, creative director of the Devlin Design Group in Frisco, Colo. His firm designs sets for about 12 to 15 stations a year and completed work last month on a new set for El Paso’s NBC affiliate KTSM-TV that includes five plasma screens, he said. The station, owned by Communications Corp. of America, uses one plasma screen for weather and two for stand-ups and has two rolling sets, Mr. Devlin said.

“It used to be we had one or two in a set. Now we are doing four or five [plasma screens] in a set. Everybody likes the look,” he said.

Large projection screens help to make a dominant visual statement, and that’s what a station usually wants to do with a set makeover, Mr. Devlin said. Still, the set design basics remain-the talent needs to look great, the background should not be distracting and the set should be lit properly, he said.

It’s also important to go for a distinct look. Sometimes that simply means selecting a style the competitor doesn’t have, he said. “You may be in a marketplace where other stations have cornered the market on a particular look, and what the goal is is to come in and do something that is different and better,” Mr. Devlin said.

Viacom’s CBS station in Chicago began its set makeover about two years ago, the same time a new management crew came on board to inject some life into the sleepy station. The previous set was too busy, and the Southwestern color palette was not flattering to the talent, said Abel Sanchez, director of design at WBBM. “You didn’t pay attention to the anchor delivering the news,” he said.

The new color palette is clean, with varying shades of blue. In addition, WBBM added new photography of the Chicago skyline that’s backlit and slightly out of a focus-an intentional move to keep the focus on the talent.

As part of the redesign WBBM rebuilt its weather center, in part because it upgraded its weather technology equipment, with new tools from weather company WSI. “You want to launch all this cool equipment in an environment that is attractive and high-tech,” Mr. Sanchez said. Many of the stations in the Fox station group are working on or have recently redone their sets as the group builds duopolies. Its Orlando, Fla., and Phoenix stations are working on new sets, while its Boston, Kansas City, Mo., and Greensboro, N.C., stations recently redid theirs. Last year the Los Angeles Fox-owned station KTTV installed a new set for its local “Good Day L.A.” show and the nationally syndicated edition, “Good Day Live.” That set is also used for other newscasts.

When KTTV in Los Angeles became a duopoly in 2001 with sister station UPN affiliate KCOP-TV, the two broadcasters had only one large studio space to accommodate both stations, and the two “Good Day” shows. “We had to make the space as flexible as possible, and some of these shows are literally back to back, and you don’t have time to set them up to transition,” said Adrianne Anderson, VP of creative services at KTTV and KCOP.

That’s why the redesign included a central point for all the cameras so they could serve the three different sets contained within a semi-circle. The new “Good Day L.A.” and “Good Day Live” set is very Hollywood, with multiple Los Angeles visuals such as palm trees, the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the beach, she said.

Different Looks

The stations can shoot from different angles and shoot across portions of the other sets, she said. The new look features several flat plasma screen monitors for different shots.

“It made it very multipurpose. You can change background and graphics in and out,” Ms. Anderson said. “The versatility is key because as we develop other shows it gives us more options, and we are not locked into a fixed area but have more of a panoramic space available to us.”

In Kansas City, Mo., the Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC affiliate KMBC-TV plans to break ground on a new building in early spring and to install a new set there sometime in 2006. While the plans are preliminary, the goal for the new set will be to showcase as much of the new facility as possible, said Wayne Godsey, president and general manager for the station.

One possibility under consideration is a rotating set that would allow the background to be the newsroom, the control room or even the weather center, he said.

In general, costs for new sets can vary from the low-five-figure range for an in-house job to $150,000 to $250,000 for a designer-built set to upward of seven figures for something akin to a network set, he said.

National networks are also revising their looks. ESPN, for instance, changed its “SportsCenter” set to a more digital, futuristic look when it moved into its new digital facility this summer. The set also expanded to 17,000 square feet from 9,000.