Election day isn’t just a competition between candidates vying for the presidency. It’s also a competition between networks vying for viewers. Television news programs spare no expense on studios that glow and pulse with video, audio, and on-screen graphics. “Election night is always one of the biggest nights of the year,” says Peter Blangiforti, Fox News’ vice president of broadcast technology. “It’s the equivalent of our Super Bowl.”
Today, Fox unveils its $30 million stadium. Almost every surface in Studio F in midtown Manhattan is a canvas for displaying information. The two-story studio features 46 screens (including an LED wall that measures 32 x 9 feet), an LED floor, a cascading set of monitors framed by a transparent staircase, and a 360-degree video “chandelier” that descends and ascends on cue. “We’re driving more than 100 million pixels of graphics and live video,” Blangiforti says.
The set is essentially an architectural infographic that newscasters can walk on, stand alongside, and interact with. “It’s all about architecture marrying with the video source, so graphics can be part of the environment,” says Jim Fenhagen, senior vice president of Jack Morton, the firm that designed Studio F. His vision is simply a sophisticated riff on what newscasts have always done on election night: Use graphics to quickly and clearly convey information, not the least of which is who’s ahead in the race to 270 electoral votes.
In 1960, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC sat in front of a wood-paneled set and reported the results of the Nixon-Kennedy nail-biter. As results came in, producers scurried about, adding numbers to placards hanging against the wall. Each network had a rudimentary means of displaying information–some used chalkboards, others hand-drawn signs. The tools have changed, but the goal is the same. “So much of election night is about mathematical data,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “It’s a story that’s particularly well matched with graphics.”
Sophisticated graphics, elaborate sets, and high production values do more than convey information, of course. They engage and entertain. At a time when everyone carries a screen and there is no end of places to get news, television networks must attract, and hold, your attention. “We’re talking about TV shows that can gone on for hours and hours,” says Jesper Gawell, chief marketing officer of ChryonHego, which provides the technology powering much of the onscreen graphics you see on TV. “You need to do something they haven’t seen before to make them stay on your channel.”
And so each presidential election tops the last as networks try to out-do each other, and themselves. For each of the past three presidential elections, NBC turned Rockefeller Plaza into “Democracy Plaza” and provided real-time updates on election returns. “We wanted to create some sort of grand-scale bar graph showing the electoral votes,” say Fenhagen, whose firm designed the set. When a curtain of LEDs on the side of the skyscraper proved too expensive, “we came up with the idea of using two window washers,” he says. The window washers would unspool red or blue fabric to show who was ahead as results came in. “You’d say, ‘Move it up 20 feet,”’ Fenhagen says. “It was the most low-tech solution.”
This year, NBC swaps the analog bar chart for digital technology that overlays graphics on the building and the ice rink below. More sophisticated, perhaps, but less charming. That’s how it is with election night: the information we want stays the same, but how we see it constantly changes.