CNN corners NYC

New York City is increasingly the land of the street-level studio. An ever-increasing number of broadcast and cable networks can't seem to get enough of gawking passersby and the city's hustle and bustle.

The final touches are being put on Paula Zahn's new home at CNN, as American Morning With Paula Zahn
prepares to launch from a new home at Sixth Avenue and 51st Street in the coming weeks. CNN's arrival makes five nationally broadcast morning shows that originate within viewing distance of the hustle and bustle of Manhattan streets.

"It's a fantastic location, and we have our own plaza so we can do all sorts of things outside, but inside my vision was that we wanted something that had some high-tech sort of things but was warmed down with colors and textures," says Guy Pepper, CNN executive director.

The street-level studio will feature wraparound windows on three sides, giving viewers and studio guests a look at Radio City Music Hall, traffic on Sixth Avenue and also Time Life Plaza, where concerts and other outdoor events will take place.

The principal architect is Meridian Design Associates. "The driving force that picked the place was its presence on the street and the ability to connect CNN to the person on the street and do what we call branding in place," says Bice Wilson of Meridian Design. "That means that CNN's content from the inside out would be associated with the place."

Meridian Design Principal Antonio Argibay headed up the project, which offered a number of structural challenges. A concrete column had to be removed from the center of the studio space. Removing the 100,000-pound column obviously meant figuring out another way to handle weight distribution. So a beam was put across the ceiling of the studio, and two sloping columns at the end of the beam transfer the load to a 68,000-pound beam below the studio. That beam redistributes the load to three columns underground.

The facility includes two studios: the 2,000-square-foot street-level studio and a 1,000-square-foot studio currently used for Connie Chung Tonight. The main control room is located across town at 5 Penn Plaza, connected via fiber link.

A studio with glass walls on three sides introduces a number of new elements into planning. Security, noise and light all become obstacles.

"There's a requirement to provide a certain amount of ballistic abatement for the safety of the guests, especially when you're in a fish bowl," says Argibay. "That has to be addressed with bullet-resistant glass."

The problem with such glass is that it requires a number of glass pieces to be layered together. The result is the glass turns green. Enter the German glassmakers and the low-iron glass known as Water White.

Glass like that comes at a price, by itself costing $800,000. Even so, total cost of the facility is less than ABC's Times Square Good Morning America
studio and substantially less on a square-foot basis than CBS's Early Show

Each piece of glass weighed more than 3,000 pounds and was ordered seven months ahead of construction to ensure that the construction would fit the windows perfectly. "Normally, when you do glazing, you wait until the frame is done and then measure, to compensate for imperfections in craftsmanship," says Wilson. "But we couldn't do that."

Windows introduce other factors as well. Environmental control becomes important: Condensation can quickly become a problem in a studio with windows where temperature can vary from zero to 100 degrees over the course of the year. The solution is to build a second set of glass walls angled inward within the outer glass walls. This creates a 2.5- to 4-foot cavity that can then be heated or cooled to maintain consistent conditions, preventing condensation and other problems.

"The space is a thermal buffer and needs to be managed," explains Wilson. "There can't be a big temperature delta from one side to the other because, if [it is] super-heated on one side and cold on the other, you can get into cracking."

Pepper says that the expanse of glass that surrounds the set will be important in keeping the look interesting and innovative. The set will also have moving walls, offering additional flexibility that is different from other sets.

"We'll keep it comfortable and inviting because that's what a morning show is about," adds Pepper.

Looking into the studio will be an important part of the new facility. Production Design Group installed four-color tickers and 50-inch plasma screens facing out to the street to make the studio worth a stop. Speakers have also been installed.

Production Design Group put together the external facade and internal sets. The ticker, says President Erik Ulfers, will run headlines and promotions for CNN, and the flat-screen monitors will be used in a variety of ways. During the morning program, it'll run the program feeds, and the interior-mounted speakers will provide an audio feed of the program for people outside the studio.

The goal, he says, is to convey a strong sense of place—both inside and outside. Being on the street with 180 degrees of exposed glass, creating a theater-in-the-round, provides unique opportunities. "The extra corner as opposed to other programs provides a little more transparency into the space," he says. "It'll give a larger panorama."