Cut the Clutter

Clean, colorful graphics help keep TV viewers in the loop

On Election Night 2000, NBC's Tim Russert's magic markers and wipe board trumped high tech. This year, NBC is again going low tech, with a cloth electoral-vote graph that will climb up the side of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, which has been dubbed "Democracy Plaza." When it reaches the 12th floor, either Bush or Kerry will have amassed 270 electoral votes.

"Our focus is journalism, journalism, journalism," says NBC's Mark Lukasiewicz, executive producer of NBC News political coverage. "Every tool helps tell the story."

NBC will also use red and blue cloth to fill in a map of the United States on the Rockefeller Center ice-skating rink as states are called. (Rival networks refer to it as "Democracy on Ice.") All the low-tech props are augmented by large screens displaying election results to the New York crowds.

The key for Campaign 2004 coverage at the networks: Keep it simple but informative.

That's why Lukasiewicz promises a new toy for Russert and his fans.

But when it comes to new gadgets, CNN's use of the NASDAQ video-monitor wall in Times Square takes top prize. "It's a 21st century version of the 1960s' big bank of vote boards arched around the network studios," says David Bohrman, CNN Washington bureau chief and vice president of news and production. The monitor wall has a mix of seventy-two 40-inch and 50-inch video monitors. CNN will splash a variety of graphics, data and even live video across the wall. A control room in the Time Warner Center facility will pull in graphics created with eight VizRT graphic engines and control an Electrosonic video processor at NASDAQ.

Graphics can be displayed on individual monitors—it's possible to dedicate 50 monitors to show results from each state—or one image can be blown up on nine. The big trick will be to blow up video from campaign HQ to cover 54 screens, says Bohrman: "It's almost reassuring to see all of the numbers and flow of data at once."

CNN Senior Vice President of Technology Gordon Castle believes the video wall helps the viewer with context. Pages of graphics can be displayed at once, as opposed to having the viewer see page after page thrown on the screen. "We're leveraging what we can do with data and technology," he says.

For its part, CBS is moving the Decision Desk team that handles projections to the studio floor. This makes it easier to react to issues, such as voter irregularities, that may pop up. The network plans to be particularly cautious in its working and clear in its graphics. Says Al Ortiz, CBS News executive producer and director of special events, "We've created new categories: races we can't estimate, races too close to estimate and races where we don't have enough information. We used to lump them in one too-close-to-call category." Also look for CBS to roll out some new demographic maps of the country, with the help of Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI).

NBC will do the same. Says Lukasiewicz, "We'll tell viewers what a projection means, and we'll be disciplined about categories like 'too early to call' or 'too close to call.'"

These are all efforts to keep viewers in the loop. "In the past, we've shown states as monoliths in two dimensions and in either red or blue," says Ortiz. "This year, we'll have a 3D display down to the county level so we can better explain why a state is so close or why we can't estimate a winner." For example, NBC will show viewers how certain demos feel about various issues, such as health care.

ABC has added three statistical experts to help crunch the voting data, and ABC News Now, its 24/7 digital and broadband network, will provide coverage, too. Any technological innovations, however, are being kept under wraps.

At Fox News Channel, Senior Vice President and Creative Director Richard O'Brien and his staff are getting ready for double duty. They'll be handling election operations for both the network and Fox News Channel. They will operate out of separate studios, sharing a third one. Working with three studios justifies the new master-control room Fox News Channel installed about a month ago (B&C, 10/18, page 38).

The new master-control room isn't the only new technology getting an Election Night workout. Fox has relied on Pinnacle's Deko character generator to handle on-air graphics for tickers, scrolls and alerts, but the large amount of information to be sent out required a step up to the next-generation Deko 3000. "We called Pinnacle and asked them if they could release it to us early," says O'Brien. "It can handle more information and do dynamic moves as the election results and electoral votes change. But it was our election alerts that put the old Deko on its ear."

The lower-third graphic will be used to display the election ticker, electoral-vote count and alerts. "You can have the sound off and still know what is going on with each race," he says. "The ticker will show the incoming results of presidential, Senate, House and governor races for each state."

O'Brien and his crew have been building 3D graphics and animations with VizRT's system. "It works great, and it is great for multi-dimensional work," he says. "All the headshots will be on 3D panels that move in and out and change from one scene to the next."

It was O'Brien who helped Fox News Channel change TV graphics forever when, on 9/11, he added a scrolling ticker. But on Election Night, he says, the scroll gets a rest, except for the alerts, in favor of a slide-show approach: "It's hard to follow election results if they're traveling across the screen."