Sets That Push All The Buttons

When Ardy Diercks, VP and general manager of WATN Memphis, planned
the new set for the rebranded station, she had a couple of priorities in mind: Always give the viewer a sense of
Memphis, whether it’s images of Beale
Street, Elvis or the city’s iconic bridge
over the Mississippi, on the video backdrop;
and never let the viewer find
themselves bored. After all, consumers
are accustomed to staring at blinking
digital devices all day, and clicking
through iPhone screens even faster than
they click their TV’s remote control.

There’s a “voyeuristic” peek into the newsroom
from the desk, Diercks said, and even the set’s lighting
is designed to cue emotions; WATN’s morning
programs are lit in a golden hue, p.m. news in blue.
“In the age of technology, people are so used to
digital,” Diercks said. “You cannot bore them—you
have to give them a different look, different feel, different
places to tell and present your stories.”

But as stations fight to stay relevant in the busy,
buzzy digital world, local TV chiefs have to pull off a
tricky balancing act: harness the array of dazzling
options available to offer viewers a presentation
that’s sticky enough to divert them
from their iPhones, but not overwhelm them
with the type of sensory overload one might
find in Times Square during the holidays. “You
have to walk the line between excitement and
overkill,” said Dan Devlin, creative director at
Devlin Design Group. “Years back, you saw
stations clog the screen with graphics. But too
much information, and you start to turn people off.”

The Joy of Good Sets

It’s a jolly time for newsroom set designers such
as Devlin, FX Design Group, Park Place Studio and
Broadcast Design International to be in the local
news business. Stations are filling seemingly every
available time slot with news—more than 40% said
they have increased the amount they produce in
2013 in a study from RTDNA/Hofstra University,
with a median of 5 hours per weekday. While a new
set can run from $250,000 to more than $600,000,
stations are opening their wallets big-time for various
accoutrements. “We’ve seen healthy budgets the
past 24 months,” said Devlin. “Election spending
might have something to do with it.”

A number of trends have emerged in that world,
including touchscreens, LED lighting, 3D backgrounds,
smaller anchor desks and enough flexibility
to shoot hard news and chummy chat shows alike.
Further down the road, there are virtual sets and
4K transmission for stations to contend with. (For
a look at how stations are adopting virtual sets, see

Local TV set buyers want what they see on cable
news and on their phones—which is increasingly
the same thing. Kim Rosenberg, senior executive
producer at Fox News Channel, shed light on the
network’s thought process behind its glittering new
“Fox News Deck.” “We’re trying to fuse the old way
of doing TV news with this new reality,” she said on, “which is smartphone apps, the Internet,
your computer.”

Turning Design Into Ratings

It’s difficult to draw a parallel between dazzling
sets and ratings, but if content is king, the setting in
which a station presents that content is critical. Frank
N. Magid Associates/FX Group surveyed viewers on a
set change at KHOU Houston; 76% said the cleaner
and brighter “After” set “made the newscasters seem
warm and friendly,” compared to 10% for the Before
set. “If the talent doesn’t look good, you lose credibility—
you lose relevance,” said Marv Danielski,
senior VP at Magid and a coauthor of the study.

While putting anchors on their feet is another
popular trend, Danielski warns that too much action
distracts and takes away from the content. That can
include the touchscreens anchors love to illustrate
stories with. “I come from a theater background,
and you never turn your back on the audience,” said
Mack McLaughlin, CEO and design director at FX
Design Group. “There’s a little negativity [among
viewers] every time you turn your back.”

It’s a tricky balancing act, but local TV has to continue
to offer bold presentations to grab, and retain,
viewers’ attention. For WATN, that means a “6-
pack” of video screens on the “virtual video wall,”
said Diercks, showing football highlights or the
YouTube clip of the day, so viewers can watch some
TV…while watching WATN. “It’s not what makes
you win,” she said. “But if the set isn’t visually interesting,
it could be a detriment.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.