In Chicago, the broadcaster is preparing to use Brainstorm’s computer-generated set for its 24/7 cable news channel as well as for special events and sports and talk shows on the channel and on flagship WGN.
Regular viewers of Tribune’s CLTV in Chicago are getting a glimpse of what may be the future of local TV news as the 24-hour cable news channel slowly transitions to a virtual set.
Use of the virtual set is “very limited” right now, says Greg Caputo, news director of CLTV and co-owned WGN. But over the next couple of months, the channel will gradually integrate the set into its production until it is virtually virtual.
Caputo says he also plans to use the set for coverage of special events and sports, talk and other shows for CLTV and WGN.
Caputo is currently focused on putting the virtual set to work on election night coverage, which will be simulcast on WGN and CLTV.
“I’ve kind of pulled back on a lot of other stuff to get the election night presentation off the virtual set worked out as well as we can.”
Figuring out how to use the set isn’t easy, he adds. “The truth is there are things that I don’t know that I don’t know and that’s what we are learning right now.”
The set is a product of the Valencia, Spain-based Brainstorm. It’s been squeezed into WGN’s Bradley Place studios with the help of Quantum Visualization Laboratories (QVizLabs) of North Charleston, S.C., a systems integrator that reps Brainstorm in the U.S.
The set should get quite a workout. With its news wheel, CLTV is mostly live during the day with three shifts of anchors throwing to taped segments and occasional live, breaking news.
WGN produces nine hours of news each day, including a five-hour morning show, a two-hour midday show and hours at 5 and 9 p.m.
Steve Charlier, Tribune SVP of local media, who has been overseeing the project, says the virtual set does far more than simply replace a hard set. It’s a tool that can enhance story-telling, present graphics in new and illuminating ways and localize stories.
“It’s really a very, very high-tech version of the chroma key with a lot of depth and dimension, and with the ability to change fast and pull up a lot of moving parts at any time.
“If you do a poll, you could bring up the results in the foreground in front of the anchor, up out of the floor. You could pull them out from the side or they could appear in the backdrop.”
Charlier says the set in Chicago has been configured to offer considerable production flexibility.
“By pointing a camera at a chroma key screen, I can create an entire virtual set with all virtual pieces, parts, integration graphics — whatever we want to do.
“I can spin that camera the opposite direction for a newsroom shot and show the newsroom only. Then I can do what would be partial virtual integration of that hard set. I can face the camera toward the newsroom, and, as long as it is locked in a specific point, I can insert virtual technology on top of that newsroom set.”
Another advantage of the technology is that it will give WGN and CLTV the ability to rebrand newscasts and shows for non-broadcast media, he says.
“I want each of our stations to think of itself not as a television news station under one brand, but instead a multiplatform content center that serves that local community with multiple products,” Charlier says.
“That’s what the virtual set allows us to do with just the push of a couple buttons and some good graphics designers.”
Charlier says he chose Brainstorm and QVizLabs because they were willing to work with Tribune in developing an application that was economical for local news and because of the quality of the Brainstorm images.
He says he had seen virtual sets elsewhere and been disappointed by their “cartoon-graphic look.”
Charlier says Tribune’s adoption of virtual technology is not about cost cutting. “We’ve been able to be very efficient in our cost of producing hard sets. We wanted to look at this really as an enhancement of our product.”
At the same time, he says, he didn’t want to spend a lot of money. “Our goal was to find something a small TV station in Fort Smith, Ark., or Harrisburg, Pa., could use just as easily as WGN could use it.
“We challenged the QViz folks. How could they literally make this a very small, compact project so it wasn’t out of our price range, so that it wasn’t going to be so big that it wouldn’t be used on a daily basis.”
QViz met the challenge, he says. “It used to be, you thought you needed the big sound stage, and everything had to be green, and you needed a maximum amount of lighting and expensive tracking and cameras.”
The work Chicago is doing today will eventually benefit all the Tribune news-producing stations, he says. “We want to find out what the best use is of the product in a couple of our stations; try to write some case studies; and down the road, pass the practices down to our other markets.”
Many broadcasters fear relying on the computer for their entire newscast, imagining anchors stranded on air in front of empty green walls and screens.
But Caputo says that is not a great concern for him. “If the computer crashes and we end up with a green background, we will simply switch over to another location. I’ve got two other backup locations in the newsroom that I can move to in a heartbeat. “
Virtual sets have been around for years, and have found their ways into productions at ESPN and other networks. But their penetration into the U.S. TV station market has so far been negligible.
David Hoffman, president of QVizLabs, wants to change that by packaging and marketing Brainstorm to TV stations and their budgets. The basic package is “right around $150,000,” he says. “This is the kind of money that they’re going to spend for a high- end weather system.”
In addition to the software, the price includes servers, encoded lens and heads and creative services and production support. “We want to be as turnkey as possible, but we anticipate you’re going to have all the standard broadcasting tools — cameras, mounts, lights and green screen.”
The technology can also be a revenue generator, he says, pointing out that stations can post and easily change advertising or sponsorship displays on the set.
“You’re actually creating advertising that is part of the set itself so viewers aren’t going to sit there and be offended by the fact that they had to sit through an advertisement before they see the content they came to see.”