On election night 2000, network anchors will have to share billing with myriad graphics that will provide up-to-the-minute voting results and detailed exit-polling analyses from races across the country. And, while the stamina and accuracy of the anchors will be challenged, as always the graphics will be faster-reacting, more versatile and more foolproof than ever.
This year's election coverage probably won't see the networks using virtual sets; four years ago, both ABC and CBS used them. But according to Mark Burstein, executive producer, special events for ABC News, his network won't have a virtual set this time around. "We don't plan on doing it," he says. "We're looking to do things in a new and improved way. We weren't unhappy with what we did, but the technology now is different."
A CBS spokeswoman says the decision about whether to use a virtual set has not yet been made, describing the one used in the '96 election as an "interesting experiment." CBS News was pleased with the on-air look, according to the spokeswoman, "but you have to be careful how you spend every penny. Virtual reality was an extra bell and whistle that we were pleased with, but our priority is the information and the analysis."
All broadcast and cable networks covering the elections will continue to receive their election-returns data primarily from VNS (Voters News Service), which is funded by broadcast and print news organizations. With the high-powered servers and faster processors being used by the networks, this data will quickly be filtered, supplemented and converted into graphics.
At the same time, graphics design has become less labor-intensive, with new software that more easily allows custom redesign. As a result, graphics artists don't have to start from scratch, but can carry over central elements created for the primaries and conventions and even use them for subsequent elections. For the most part, the Election 2000 look for most networks was already in place during the early stages of this year's race.
"We're expanding on what we started two years ago," says Frank Governale, vice president of operations for CBS News. "We generally use the off-year elections to pioneer new ideas." A key change is using one high-powered server-an SGI Origin 200-to ingest data and handle processing, rather than 100 Pentium II PCs that were previously used.
Along with this faster processing server, there are five SGI Onyx servers to receive the numbers from the data server and create graphics. The general formula is to use two for the state-by-state display boards, one for predicting trends, another to store and deliver results of CBS' own polling and finally one for "Mr. Map,"-a map of the U.S., that is finger-activated by Dan Rather and used to break down voting by party in a particular state, for example, California.
All graphics are derived from templates created with Peak Everest software. "The data populates the fields within the templates in real time," Governale points out.
CBS has an intranet for affiliates, offering the latest polling and VNS information. In the November election, it will be updated every minute for all of the 600 races being tracked, all the way down to the county level. All national-election poll data will be updated three times a night for every state.
Ray Lambiase, creative director for CNN USA, says that, for the first time, CNN is using the Discreet Frost real time 3-D graphics rendering system. The real-time data comes into the network's graphics interface and enters a template, where Frost converts the numbers to graphics and renders a 3-D version of the artwork to air in real time.
Producers will create a rundown of templates to be used, employing a Vertigo Playout Manager graphics interface, which runs the graphics to air. With all the graphics existing on Frost awaiting the information that affects them, "It's like artwork waiting to happen," says Lambiase.
He says CNN's animation look was created before the end of last year so that a consistent look would be seen throughout the campaign. "We storyboarded the main open[ing] for next November during last December so that we could build on it," he explains. "Our artwork needs to be simple and interesting-but first and foremost, clear."
"For the first time," he adds, "we've relied heavily on Discreet's Fire for editing and compositing, and its Flame for compositing also. They've enabled us to create a more sophisticated platform. We could take designs from the Republican convention and change them for the Democratic convention with new elements. This saves a lot of time that we can use in creating additional pieces of art."
NBC is reaping similar benefits with the Discreet Frost 3-D animation station, used in conjunction with Vertigo Multimedia's Producer graphical user interface.
"When the '96 election was over, everything had to be redone for '98," says Tony Franquera, associate director of NBC Design Works. "But now we have a system that allows us to model in 3-D, animate in real time and link the 3-D objects to a user-controllable interface so that we can custom design it later without having to reprogram."
The network has streamlined the process of collecting data from VNS, according to Ron Schiller, director of engineering, studios and graphic operations for NBC. The data now is converted immediately into a Sequel server database. This allows pre-filtering of the VNS data instead of loading in everything that is sent.
Once the data are stored in SGI Onyx workstations, the information can be extracted and attached to the Frost, with Producer allowing the control of 3-D of objects residing in Frost.
"The first time we did real time 3-D to air was the '96 presidential election," Franquera says. "That was hard-coded and we used various developers to do it. Then we did only half of our displays in 3-D."
With the new setup, everything can be done in 3-D, using essentially a single-vendor system supplied by Discreet in partnership with Vertigo. With Vertigo's Producer on SGI 320 workstations, VNS projections no longer have to be stripped out by hand and the map is no longer hand-generated.
NBC facilities in 30 Rockefeller Center will be set up to serve MSNBC and CNBC as well. According to Mel Weidner, vice president of technical operations and engineering for MSNBC, "After rolling up all the requirements, it makes sense to create and leverage one system throughout all the entities."
"We all have to make sure we put up the same election results," says Chris Lizza, MSNBC's director of engineering. "The NBC Decision Desk makes the calls for all of the entities." The data reside in SGI 1400 Series servers that are set up like a triangle for the three networks, says Lizza. There will be T1 lines from each network to each of the two others. This provides redundancy in case there is a failure in one of the lines.
Lizza says MSNBC will use 10 SGI 320 workstations, with a similar complement existing at the other two networks.
Also, all three use an SGI Octane to produce the ticker running across the bottom of the screen. A Chyron Infinit had been used previously, but the Octane was chosen because it better integrates with the SGI hardware and Discreet software throughout the system.
At FOX News, the network is using a new Video Designs system this year that takes VNS information and sends it to the terminals of people in New York and Washington for viewing as well as driving the on-air graphics systems.
Warren Vandeveer, vice president of operations and engineering, says the graphics are designed as templates and sent to a Discreet Frost system, which provides the 3-D animation. Chyron Infinit is used for 2-D animation.
Burstein of ABC News says a team of graphics artists and engineers is devising more efficient ways of presenting election data, but declines to specify how this is being done.
ABC will broadcast from its Times Square studios, with its backdrop of "real people." He also says that the network is working on an intranet site for affiliates.
Serving all the major networks and more than 400 TV stations, AP GraphicsBank has been working for months on new campaign images that are applicable to election night, according to Brad Kalbfeld, deputy director and managing editor of the AP Broadcast Division.
"We try to identify the races that are most in demand and make up our priority lists accordingly," he says.
"This includes most of the major state races. And if a member asks for something, we'll go out and get it. We'll have boards that they can put the candidates' head shots in and put Chyron results over them. We also have maps to use in highlighting results by states or for using in statewide races."
AP is offering an election night service called ElectionWire, delivering vote count updates every five minutes. For most elections, results are available all the way down to the county level.
GraphicsBank, meanwhile, is rolling out in a higher-resolution version that goes up to 2,000 x 1,500 pixels-high-definition resolution. Users can choose such resolutions as PAL, NTSC or HDTV as well as various other resolutions to conform to their own graphics equipment.
A new Speed Search feature puts out a menu of top stories, so that users can click on the menu rather than an inappropriate word in searching. Another new feature is GraphicShare, providing station groups with the mechanism to store images centrally on AP servers and share them.