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Tech's Election Night battle

Come next Tuesday night, it will be Democrats vs. Republicans at the polls and VizRT vs. Discreet's Frost on the tube: The two companies' graphics systems will be in use for the major news networks' election coverage. Frost is the incumbent, having gained favor with the networks a few years ago, but VizRT has begun to make strides.

CBS and Fox News Channel (which made the switch from Frost last January) will both use VizRT's system. "The problem with Frost was that Discreet doesn't continue to support it," says Fox News Channel Vice President and Creative Director Rich O'Brien. "They stopped improvements a couple years ago so we decided to move information graphics over to VizRT."

CNN, NBC and ABC, on the other hand, will continue to use the Frost system. "It hasn't evolved a lot, but the look and the feel and the textures are still very good," explains David Forman, executive producer of CNN's Election Night coverage. "I think it's more of a design issue than a technology one."

One of the advantages of using Discreet's Frost and Vertigo systems for election coverage, he adds, is that there is already a base of material in the system from the previous election, which saves development time. ABC News Creative Director Hal Aronow-Theil says that was a factor in ABC's decision to use Frost again this year.

NBC News Senior Producer Cliff Kappler says the same thing. "We were able to build some pretty good templates on Frost in 2000, and it uses a logical process that can lay out pretty simply."

NBC will use an SGI Onyx workstation running Frost to handle the Voter News Service (VNS) data stream and convert it into real-time displays. Another Onyx will work with the interpretive data. "We like to keep things nice and simple," says Kappler. "Towards that end, we're basically taking the same approach we did last time."

One of the things FNC learned from the previous election, O'Brien says, is that people just want to see results. "We designed our boards so that we'd be able to get the information on quicker and cleaner. A lot of time, we build really fancy animations, and the numbers kind of get lost because there is no time to run those things."

New elections do mean new candidates and, in turn, new graphics. The past couple of months have been busy ones for all network news graphics departments.

"If we've done our job right, once it gets to that night, it'll just run," explains O'Brien. "People in the control room will call up the boards, and we'll just be dealing with the polling information."

Like FNC, CBS will rely heavily on VizRT graphics software running on SGI Onyx and O2 workstations. The network's coverage will center on a 10 p.m. ET special newscast, with the rest of the evening's coverage left to quick cut-ins and lower-third graphics running over entertainment programming when a race can be called.

"All the graphics are template-based and use real-time data we'll get from VNS and AP," says Frank Governale, vice president, news operations, for CBS. He's hopeful that the VNS system will be usable for all the races across the country, but, if it isn't, the AP data will be used.

Reworking the VNS system since the debacle of the 2000 election has been a complicated process and has required some technical changes on the part of the broadcasters, according to Governale. For example, VNS data will now be sent over in the XML format, which means that code has had to be rewritten at CBS to allow ingest of the XML data and proper generation of the databases.

The networks that use the VizRT system cite its use of template-based graphics as an important feature. Interfaces between the VNS and other polling data and the VizRT workstations allow polling results to be called up immediately in animations and other graphics. FNC, for example, will have its primary VizRT system running on an SGI Onyx workstation in the control room, giving the control room much-improved control over the on-air content. A back-up system will also be on hand.

CBS's VizRT version of a news ticker with race results will have a different look this year, says News Director of Studio Operations Phil Selby. "It has an elegant effect that brings itself on and off the air during the entertainment programming."

Right now, both CNN and Fox News Channel expect to have tickers displaying election results. CNN's, which is run by a Chyron Maxine character generator, will be dedicated to election results, but that could change if there are developments in non-election news.

Clutter, however is a concern. Forman says the ticker won't be on the screen when other election-board graphics are on air. "That's just a little too much on the screen at a given time."

ABC is making some changes to its approach. For one thing, it will use Chryon's Duet system coupled with Aprisa digital disk recorders, which will store animations that will be combined with election results on the Duet. Also new this year will be a proprietary telestrator-based technology that ABC News has created. "Instead of going out and renting some equipment," says Aronow-Theil, "we wanted to develop something for our own use that might have applications down the road for things like war coverage." The talent will be able to draw on the telestrator and have what they draw appear on a rear-projection television.

The look of CNN's graphics will be a little more modern than the 2000 graphics. "There's a fair amount of red, white and blue involved, which I've seen that some of the other networks are moving away from," Forman says. "But I think it's appropriate for Election Night."