NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations’ Therese Gamba, SVP of marketing and acquired programming, and Jeff Morris, SVP of operations and technology, discuss trends in local news set design, how they approach working with O&Os, new technologies that are improving on-air presentations and making storytelling better and where the stations stand with the latest tech. This is Part Three of a four-part Special Report on news sets. Parts One and Two appeared Tuesday and covered big video displays and monitor arrays (Part One) and the growing use of video display controllers (Part Two). Part Four on Thursday takes a close-up at the innovative approaches in use at WTXF Philadelphia and KDKA Pittsburgh.You can read the other parts here.
For Therese Gamba, SVP of marketing and acquired programming, and Jeff Morris, SVP of operations and technology — both of NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations — the time between regulatory approval of Comcast’s acquisition of the network from GE in 2011 to the present has been “a fast five years,” as Gamba describes it.
The reason is easy to understand. During that time, the NBCUniversal O&O division has upgraded, updated or completely built from the ground up more than half of the 46 studios within its 22 facilities, and Gamba and Morris have played key roles in each.
Morris has overseen the technical work from stations in markets as small as McAllen, Texas, to the O&O’s East and West Coast flagship stations, WNBC in New York City and KNBC on the Universal Studios lot in Studio City, Calif.
Gamba, a former creative services director, focuses her attention on helping NBCU O&Os with their new set designs, including what stations want the sets to look like, what resources are available and what new resources might be brought to the project as well as helping them emphasize their connection with their local markets through the design choices they make.
In this Q&A with TVNewsCheck’s tech editor Phil Kurtz, Gamba and Morris discuss trends in local news set design, how they approach working with O&Os, new technologies that are improving on-air presentations and making storytelling better and where the stations stand with virtual sets and augmented reality, 4K and bezel-less LED displays, like the one that debuted this month on the new WNBC news set at 30 Rockefeller Center.
An edited transcript:
Therese, you work with the NBCU O&Os when the decision has been made to roll out a new news set. Where do you start?
Gamba: First and foremost, we want to make sure the set reflects the marketplace. If you look at some of our cities, we have some incredible skyscraper shots. We put one in San Francisco. I can say this because I am a hometown girl from San Francisco: I think that is one of the prettiest city skylines you will ever see.
Then we will start a conversation about what the station hopes to achieve with their space, the time they have to put it together with the technology that is currently available and what might be becoming available.
Next, we address where the anchor desk is going to be, whether there will be a weather center, where the chromakey is going to be, and how many cameras will be used. Will they all be robotic, or will there be a handheld? We answer these questions before we even start talking to the designers.
Morris: But, the process is station-driven.
Are there any big concerns local stations share about their new set designs?
Morris: We have a pretty broad group. We have one anchor presenting [at some stations], and then we have the larger ensembles, like New York, L.A. and Boston. It is a mixed bag, and everyone is unique.
But as far as common themes, we always try to help them focus on the things that are going to be visible to the viewer, which includes the head-on anchor shots, the weather area and another presentation area in the studio itself.
How do you help them sort out what their individual visions are for their sets?
Gamba: Well, it kind of goes back to space. How much is there? And then, do they do different kinds of shows?
If we know we have to reserve a place on the set that has the capability of doing a variety and entertainment show on a daily basis, that is something that is really important to know from the get-go.
Jeff, from a tech point of view what demands does baking this sort of flexibility into a new news set create?
Morris: It’s actually gotten a lot easier, thankfully. The combination of LED lights and flat panel displays has made it extremely easy for us to switch between a straight-up news show and the more dynamic entertainment shows we have in some of our markets.
Really, with a couple of switches on the automation side of things, you can go from a straight-up news show to a lifestyle show, which is what we do in New York, on a daily basis. They do that by a quick switch of a color of the lights feeding the panels inside of the studio itself and a switch of the graphics feeding the monitors.
It’s basically gotten down now to the equivalent of a couple of button pushes. So you can swing very quickly from a serious news show to a lifestyle show.
Flat panel monitor bezels have gotten smaller and smaller, allowing monitors to be placed closer and closer together. Still, they aren’t seamless. LED displays offer an alternative. What are your thoughts about LED displays for news sets?
Morris: We just launched our [WNBC] studio in New York, which creates a bezel-less flat panel LED experience. We were really happy with it.
It was the right tool to use in New York; it probably wouldn’t be the right tool to use everywhere. It’s expensive right now, and it’s also studio-size dependent. You need the right dynamics in the room in terms of the physical space for it to work properly. Otherwise, you might get moiré patterns on the screen.
So, it is a location-specific, space-specific tool. But we are really happy with the way it looks in New York right now, and some day we will consider it for future sets.
With all of these displays on news sets, the demand for graphics must be escalating. How are stations handling the increased volume?
Gamba: I think we are all very aware of the fact that with each additional monitor added to the set, it’s going to be something that has to be filled. You can’t have a blank monitor.
So, I think we are very careful that we don’t make the sets look too heavy, too crowded, too monitor-filled.
We do have a graphics package that all of the NBC stations have as well as another package that all of the Telemundo stations have.
I think the stations have really done a good job of using those because they really reinforce their brand.
Does 4K on the horizon in the form of ATSC 3.0 impact how you approach these new sets from a technical perspective, or is that still too far down the road to affect how sets are designed?
Morris: In terms of 4K presentations to the viewer, it is a little bit too far down the road. But, as Therese said, with every job we bring in a visual of the market and have that emphasized on the set. That’s where we see 4K playing a role.
Sometimes that takes the shape of a backdrop behind the anchor desk. New York [WNBC] is an example. We have a camera on the top of 30 Rock that is fed by a fiber down to the studio and that fills up the screen behind the anchors.
Copy and paste that across every market we have in our division, and that camera will get better.
In the case of New York where it is a direct camera feed, we have the ability to put a new 4K camera up there, display the beautiful view from the top of the Rock onto that monitor and create a better image. That is where 4K really comes into play in the sets right now.
Local TV doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and where stations may once have viewed their main competition for an audience and ad dollars as daily metro newspapers, today stations are competing with social media, websites and mobile, which younger people gravitate to, for viewers and revenue. Is there anything from a TV set point of view that can help broadcasters re-engage with younger viewers?
Morris: At the end of the day, these local news operations are publishers of content, and they publish content to wherever the audience is.
Right, but on the local TV news set are elements being used that emulate what viewers experience with their digital devices?
Morris: Yes. A good example is a few years ago we put these [Microsoft] Perceptive Pixel, very high-quality multi-touch displays in studios that allow presenters to manipulate images and allow a pretty dynamic, active presentation. They can be used that way or with static images.
Finally, what are your thoughts about virtual sets or hybrid hard and virtual sets for local news? And where do you think augmented reality graphics stand?
Morris: We have one market that is currently using virtual technology in its set. It’s [KNBC] in L.A. They have three or four different representations of it, and it has worked very well there.
We have not moved beyond L.A. yet, but it does work well there. We are exploring opportunities for future projects, but L.A. is the only place we have done it.
Gamba: For augmented graphics, I think what KNBC is doing is really very clean and interesting looking, and I think it helps tell you the weather or the story.
But from an actual set, we don’t have any virtual sets. Again, augmented reality is still very cutting edge.
Morris: I am looking forward to what election night brings because it always brings out the most extreme graphics — the Super Bowl of graphics.
This is Part Three of a four-part Special Report on news sets. You can read the other parts here.