Overhaul in Overdrive

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

While the recent “ultimate makeover” of the news operation at WCYB-TV in Bristol, Va., put the station’s revamp plans on a dramatic fast track, getting the station’s news up to date involved a rare, months-long collaboration with five different companies.

As part of the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s inaugural “Ultimate Newscast Makeover,” the broadcast design firms donated their work and collaborated to bring new stages, a state-of-the-art weather center and fresh graphics and music to the Bluestone-owned station. All told, the revamp was worth some $250,000.

Generally stations redo one or two elements at a time, most often due to the costly nature of a makeover. Overhauling the many parts concurrently enabled the group to work on one cohesive vision for the newscast.

“We had budgeted some money to make a few changes ourselves,” WCYB News Director Stephen Hawkins said. “When I found out about the makeover project I thought, wow, if we could add this to what we were doing, that would really be a hell of a set.”

Promoting Cooperation

The project also has turned out to be a natural platform for the RTNDA to promote cooperation among its varied constituencies. The overhaul will be revealed in a video diary and presentation April 20, during the RTNDA’s conference and exhibit for radio, television and online news, which runs at the same time as the National Association of Broadcasters’ conference at the Las Vegas Hilton, today though Wednesday.

RTNDA Regional Director Chip Mahaney, who pitched the “Ultimate Newscast Makeover” concept to RTNDA members last fall, said he hopes to make the project an annual tradition. The decision on whether to reprise the project next year likely will be made by the end of the week, and Mr. Mahaney said he is excited by the prospect of next year’s makeover.

“Imagine what we could do with a full year’s prep time as opposed to five months,” Mr. Mahaney said.

WCYB was selected from among 16 different stations from various market sizes that applied for the opportunity, in part because its case represented a clear, but not cost-prohibitive undertaking. While WCYB’s overall design was a bit dated, Mr. Mahaney said, the station, which is the top-rated news channel in its market, was more in need of a revitalization to reflect its established reputation rather than what one designer referred to as a “blowtorch” job.

“The good thing about WCYB is that they already had a sound foundation that we could build on,” Mr. Mahaney said. “They just needed a freshening of their on-air look and we felt we could go in and really bring that look into the 21st century.”

WCYB learned it had won the golden ticket in mid-January and immediately set about coordinating with the companies charged with the revamp to formulate the overall vision for the new newscast. RTNDA representatives lined up a creative team of three set-design firms-Devlin Design Group, FX Group and Broadcast Design International. Stephen Arnold Music was enlisted to rehab the musical cues and VDO would be in charge of the station’s graphic look. The companies descended on Bristol for a week at the end of January for a quick appraisal, then went their separate ways, keeping in touch via e-mail and weekly conference calls, an element of the project that most of the designers say is unheard of.

But the compressed time frame as well as the shared financial burden made the prospect of enlisting a single set-design firm to tackle the project impossible. For these companies to donate money as well as move staff away from projects the firms were being paid to perform made a cooperative operation a necessity.

“The set design is usually a longer process,” VDO’s Dianne Streyer said. “And then we come in toward the end of the set design. This time everybody had to tag-team because we were changing the logo as they were changing the set. It was just a study in teamwork.”

VDO Takes the Lead

BDI’s Tim Saunders said once VDO took the lead graphically, his company could jump off from that point with its set design.

“From a set standpoint, we wanted to cue off those graphic elements and make sure that everything we did on the set really reinforced the branding drive they were going for.”

VDO’s participation was especially noteworthy since it marked the first time WCYB handed its graphic package to an outside firm. Mr. Hawkins was anxious to bring an outside perspective to a look he admits was “very weak.” FX team members jumped at the opportunity, ultimately replacing the station’s dated still images with a new station logo and contemporary graphic animation.

Stephen Arnold Music’s challenge became maintaining the station’s established brand while creating a more dynamic sound design and introducing music that was consistent with Bristol’s quintessentially Southern American culture.

“Bristol really considers itself the birthplace of bluegrass music,” Stephen Arnold’s Creative Director Chad Cook said. “So we wanted to create something that really reflected the musical identity of the community by adding music that incorporated mandolins and fiddles.”

“It maintained this idea of keeping the station’s personality while getting away from the gloom and doom style of many news broadcasts,” Mr. Cook added.

While VDO and Stephen Arnold Music were accustomed to a certain degree of collaboration, bringing together set designers who normally manage projects independently was a unique prospect that meant the building operation would have to be tackled a little differently.

Various plans of attack were discussed, but in the end it was decided the set itself would be divided into three distinct areas of focus. BDI would handle the news desk areas, FX would tackle the weather center and Dan Devlin would manage the multipurpose interview area.

The cost of the makeover was shouldered by all the parties-WCYB had already allocated funds for some minor set changes which primarily went into the weather center rehab. While the interview and news areas were gutted, the overhaul of the weather center was the biggest undertaking. For years WCYB had split time between a weather set on the first floor and a weather tech center in the second floor newsroom. The new design incorporates the weather center into the set. FX installed new plasma monitors and a rear-projection system that allowed for more movement on-set. FX Creative Director Mack McLaughlin ended up relighting the entire set.

The makeover artists returned to the station April 4 and over the course of the following week installed the changes, just in time for the station’s 6 p.m. news broadcast on Friday, April 8.

It is hoped the finished product ensures the station’s vitality in the modern era of television news, but it is the shared burden of the project at such a breakneck speed that Mr. Hawkins said made the biggest impression on him.

“What the designers really put into it in a sense was a surprise-how much they embraced it,” he said. “They’re giving us something free. And you wouldn’t know it by the way we’ve been treated. They’ve put in time and have been here to make sure everything is perfect.”