For Some Newscasts,Virtual Sets Are the Top Story

As broadcast stations face pressure to reduce big capital expenditures and
boost revenue with more newscasts, a growing number of U.S. news operations are addressing the problem with virtual
sets. This is a notable evolution from the
recent past; most of the demand for virtual
sets has come from larger broadcasters
or channels outside the U.S.

“We are starting to see a trend where a
lot of mid-sized and smaller markets are
looking to adopt virtual sets to give them
the flexibility they didn’t have with hard
sets,” says Shaun Dail, VP of sales and marketing for
North America at Orad, which has been approached
by a number of smaller-market stations considering
the technology over the last three months. “That is
a big switch from the past.”

In one such case, the Morris Television Network
stations have deployed virtual sets at its ABC affiliate
WWAY in Wilmington, N.C., and at Fox affiliate
WXXV in Gulfport, Miss., with plans to install them
at additional stations in upcoming months.

Virtual Sets, Real Savings

WWAY chief engineer Billy Stratton reports his
station began looking for new sets as part of an HD
upgrade. But after discovering that replacing their
current sets designed for a 4x3 standard-definition
newscast would be way too expensive, they began
exploring virtual sets, which some of the group’s stations
had already been utilizing on a limited basis.

Working with Vizrt, WWAY became one of the
first U.S. stations to deploy the vendor’s virtual set
in April. Since then, they have upgraded it with new
Panasonic cameras in the studio, which is allowing
them to pan and zoom around the virtual set in a
way that gives the station’s newscast a
more dynamic look.

“Our president, Dean Hinson, has always
been pushing us to improve the visual presentation
of the show,” Stratton says. “A lot
of the bigger markets can use jibs or have
camera set-ups to do things we obviously
couldn’t afford. Now with the virtual set,
we’re able to start doing a lot of things with
camera movement to really improve the quality.”

Another big advantage of using virtual sets is they
will allow WWAY to launch an additional newscast
on their subchannel CW station in January without
having to build a new studio or facility. “That is really
huge for us,” Stratton says.

Ellen Camloh, senior director of product marketing
at NewTek, notes that the capabilities of virtual
sets have increased while their costs have come
down. “The technologies for creating virtual sets
have made them much more realistic,” she says. “It
is not just improvements in the presentation of the
graphics, but the fact that you now have very realistic
camera movement for pans and zooms.”

The NewTek TriCaster production system also has
the ability to show talent inside a panoramic shot of
a location. “It can make the viewer feel like they are
inside of the location and heightens the experience,”
while cutting travel costs for sending a crew to the
location, Camloh says.

Augmenting Sales

The improved graphics are also boosting demand
for augmented reality technologies that add virtual
elements to a real set. “It raises the production value
and adds new revenue sources because you can
start putting sponsored logos into the production,”
says Brian Olson, marketing product manager for
Xpression at Ross Video, who reports an uptick in
demand for virtual sets among U.S. stations.

“Interest is reaching a critical mass,” Olson adds,
thanks to improved quality and economic pressures.

Those economic pressures have made virtual
sets attractive for digital operations and for smaller
stations. “You can do multiple programs in a very
limited space,” says Dail. “With the high cost of
syndicated programming, virtual sets allow stations
to produce programming themselves and fill it with
local content.”

Dail and others stress, however, that stations
have to be careful in the ways they approach deployments
of virtual sets. Some lower-cost versions
have limited capabilities for showing camera movement
and other features that, with better product,
can greatly improve the quality of a newscast. “A
lot of systems don’t utilize the kind of true camera
movement you need to maximize your investment,”
Dail says.