Election Graphics: Less Costly, More Powerful

Lower prices for technologies once thought out of the reach of the average station are giving news departments more options for their graphics. Among the more affordable innovations are virtual sets and immersive graphics as well as the ability to integrate social media comments into on-air election coverage. This is the final installment of a three-part special report on 2014 election coverage. To read the other stories, click here.

Election night gives all news-producing TV stations the chance to strut their journalistic stuff, and all other things like accuracy and timeliness being equal, the right graphics and virtual sets in reporting on political races can go far in trying to win ratings races.

“Elections are not just a windfall for stations, they are also a positioning opportunity for the station to show the entire local audience how well they perform,” says Bonnie Barclay, VP of marketing at FX Design Group. “It’s a very competitive night and election graphics can really help stations stand out.”

ChyronHego graphics at WAPA San Juan, P.R.Lower prices for technologies once thought out of the reach of the average local station are giving news departments more options for their graphics on election night. “What we are seeing with some of these new solutions, such as our Shout for social media integration, is that they are lowering the bar to attain a high level of sophistication in election coverage by reducing demands on budgets,” says Todd Martin, VP of graphic services, at ChyronHego.

Perhaps the best examples of affordable high-end graphics are the virtual sets and immersive graphics, which can be used to add objects, such as a pie chart with race results, to a shot so they appear as if they are coming out of the floor or a desk.

Billy Stratton, chief engineer at WWAY, the Morris Multimedia-owned ABC affiliate in Wilmington, N.C. (DMA 131), says the station is busy preparing a new virtual election night set — and if there’s time, immersive graphics — for use in November.

Since April 2013, WWAY has been on-air with a virtual news set driven by two Vizrt Viz Engines, a Vizrt Viz Trio character generator and third-party software from TurboSquid, Stratton says.


A key reason for choosing a virtual set over a real one was the lower cost, he says.

And the secret to holding down the cost of the virtual set was eliminating camera tracking, a technique that sends camera positioning data with each frame of video to the graphics engine generating the virtual sets.

“We would obviously prefer to have tracking cameras for the ease. But what we have learned since we’ve had this is that we can put in virtual moves that will have the same look as a tracking camera. It is just a little harder to do,” Stratton says.

For the election-night virtual set, the station is working again with TurboSquid. WWAY already uses immersive graphics as part of a sports show it produces and is hoping to implement similar graphics for election night 2014. (To read a Q&A with WWAY’s Stratton, go to TVNewscheck‘s Playout blog here.)

Several vendors, including Vizrt, ChyronHego and Ross Video, sell systems that support virtual sets with immersive graphics at different prices with different levels of sophistication.

Ross, for example, offers a trackless virtual set as an entry-level system. “Our XPression graphics engine can take video inputs, and we can essentially accomplish a chroma-key internally so we composite talent with the virtual set internally. That is the most cost-effective approach,” says Andrew Sampson, Ross Video’s marketing product manager, technical.

Mid-market and larger stations may find a virtual set with camera tracking more to their liking, but they will pay more. A typical Ross Video three-camera virtual set system with dedicated renderer for each camera and camera robotics will cost about $225,000, Sampson says.

Closely related to the virtual setup is touchscreen capability. The touch of a virtual monitor on a virtual set or real-world LCD or plasma panel in a real set can trigger a cascade of election graphics to display election results by geographic region, says ChyronHego’s Martin.

Integration of social media comments into on-air election coverage is also taking off. “What social media does is to give coverage a bit more immediacy, and it makes election coverage seem real to people,” says James Gilbert, CEO of Pixel Power. “If viewers, politicians and campaign workers are Tweeting away, and that ends up on air, it’s a great way of engaging with the audience.”

Pixel Power’s new Buzz social media integrator allows comments from social media, including Twitter and Facebook, to be integrated in a station’s on-air presentation via the company’s graphics engine. Comments can be moderated by a producer, corrected and selected for use during election coverage, Gilbert adds.

Social media integration also is a visible sign of a bigger underlying election graphics trend: real-time processing of various data inputs to drive changes in on-air visuals. “You could have RSS feeds or on the social media side from our Shout social media moderation tool — Twitter, Facebook or Instagram comments — in addition to traditional Associated Press feeds pushing data into templates,” says ChyronHego’s Martin. “Those changes in the data can trigger animations or other cool visual treatments that reflect changing data in real time.”

“The strength of real-time graphics engines is I can take any value and use it to augment any property of any object,” explains Ross Video’s Sampson. For example, the opacity, color or size of a graphic element could be used to reflect changes in a political party’s control of a house of Congress.

Manipulating graphics in real time based on changes in data is leading to more innovative on-air presentation of election coverage, says Pixel Power’s Gilbert. “Rather than just the traditional static tables and counts, there is a lot more movement and animation.

“There is an ever-increasing appetite for finding new ways of presenting data to distinguish your station from the station down the road,” Gilbert says.

Too often, however, a station will wait until the days leading up to the election to get serious about using its data feeds to drive election graphics.

“I think there is some naivety and lack of preparedness that we have experienced from some stations in the past, and I hope it will be better this time around,” says Gilbert. “We prefer stations think ahead a bit more to begin organizing their technology for the elections.”

This is the final installment of a three-part special report on 2014 election coverage. To read the other stories, click here.

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