Viewers Embrace Novel News Presentation Modes, But Presenters Themselves Are Key
Today, when developing fresh ways to deliver news that compellingly caters to viewers, publishers might default to technological innovations. But while the bells and whistles that come with cutting-edge production tools can certainly enhance viewer engagement, sometimes slight, low-tech changes will do the trick, too.
Barry Nash, head of the Barry Nash & Co. talent coaching group, recently tested a series of weather forecast packages with viewers in a study sponsored by FX Design Group. It featured the same on-air talent presenting the same data, but in different positions on the screen.
“The more intimate settings won head-to-head every time,” Nash said during a panel discussion, Reinventing News Presentation and Presenters in a Multimedia Ecosystem, at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHForum in New York on Dec. 13. Digital 3X3 framing scored significantly higher than a weathercast presented in a 3×6 array, for example. One viewer Nash polled went so far as to say the broadcast was “easier to understand” when the weathercaster was positioned closer to the camera.
The lesson: Viewers warm to new presentation tech, but the presenter’s role remains crucial.
Meanwhile, inside The Weather Channel’s studios, wildfires rage, floodwaters rise above anchors’ heads, hurricane winds pick up cars and slam them down next to cringing forecasters. The destruction may be simulated — thanks to the power of immersive mixed reality technology — but its impact on viewers, Weather Channel producers believe, is as profound as it is important.
“We need[ed] to bring the weather, for a visual, visceral experience, inside the studio,” said Nora Zimmett, president of news and original series at The Weather Channel. “What we have found is that it’s really paid off in terms of the engagement from audiences.”
The “cinematic” graphics have a “wow factor” for viewers, Zimmett said, but they also generate “a-ha moments” for them. Providing an example, she said viewers responded to 3D exhibitions of climbing storm surge waters by saying it helped them better understand why authorities request evacuations during extreme rain events.
“That’s been huge,” Zimmett said. “We’ve also seen a ton of interest from advertisers and distributors, and that’s been a really interesting part of the industry that we didn’t expect, that people are coming to us because they want to be a part of these environments as well.”
It doesn’t hurt that the overall quality of the virtual reality graphic technology The Weather Channel integrates into broadcasts has grown by leaps and bounds. The speed at which it can be deployed has also increased dramatically.
“We now do this live,” Zimmett said. “You give us a scene and we’ll give you the real weather conditions … live on the fly without any editing, from fog to rain to snow, without cutting away.”
She said at one point such productions took up to five months of preparation. In terms of the station’s ability to present stories, Zimmett called this innovation a “game-changer.”
But Nash noted the technology’s full potential was undoubtedly not realized overnight — not before the on-air talent were appropriately trained to use it and engage with it.
“In research, viewers are quick to criticize [on-air talent] who look awkward and uncomfortable,” Nash said. “You’ve got to get into a mindset that ‘I’m not treating my talent as set dressing. If I’m going to have the tools, I’ve got to let my talent use them and they’ve got to be comfortable using them.’”
He observed that The Weather Channel’s on-air meteorologists all moved about the set with confidence while delivering their reports in tandem with the VR graphics. It certainly took time for them to “own it” on the air, Nash added.
The panel yielded other insights into evolving presentational best practices, and chief among them was to give talent permission to be authentically themselves.
An exemplar of that idea is Christian Bryant, anchor of Scripps News/Newsy’s In the Loop. Moderator and TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp observed that Bryant “does not come across like a traditional anchor in any way.” Viewers won’t see him in a suit and tie, and the sleeves of his collared shirt are typically rolled up. They will also hear him address them directly, with his sense of humor on display whenever appropriate. “Casual” is the best word to describe his general on-air persona.
“I get the chance to bring my whole self to the table,” Bryant said. “It seems to resonate with some people.”
He called In The Loop the “dive bar of news shows” because, like such an establishment, it’s “devoid of pretentiousness.”
Presenters also stressed TV news shouldn’t be afraid to provide behind-the-scenes access to the news producing process.
The curtain is continually pulled back on the set of Gray Television’s Hawaii News Now show This Is Now. Produced, directed and hosted by Jonathan Saupe, the show is a mix of short news items with later stretches of conversation between Saupe, a co-host and guests. It’s available to stream in audio-only as well as video formats, where viewers get to see Saupe work his relatively low-tech production controls in real time, much to their delight.
“It [is] so fascinating how literate our viewers are to how TV works,” Saupe said. “The magic is gone. They understand how video is edited; everyone does it on their phone every day. They understand what I’m doing when I’m pressing my buttons, so I think [we’re] just honest with them in our presentation.”
Saupe re-edits packages from other newscasts, often using footage left on the cutting room floor for This Is Now before they giving way to more lengthy discussion segments of the program. Behind just a couple of monitors and a microphone, Saupe delves deeper into the stories with his co-host and guests — stories he says are chosen for the most “viral possibilities.”
But the scant equipment requirements make for an agile production as well with breaking news capabilities that were recently on display when Saupe provided real-time updates on a volcano eruption.
“I hope that what comes across when we’re presenting news is that we care about our community,” Saupe said. “What we’re doing is really coming across conversationally; we’re talking to people in a real way.”
For more NewsTECHForum 2022 stories, click here.