QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Do Pictures Always Tell the Story?

As if things weren't bad enough with America's number one source of news and information, now comes the virtual reality invasion. Yes, Star Wars has invaded TV news. The old newsroom cliche -- "If it bleeds, it leads" -- has now taken on new meaning.On most nights NBC's Tom Brokaw stands in front of a life-size video wall of sliding graphical images. That was outdone on election night when CBS correspondent Harry Smith was suspended in a virtual set resembling a graphical spreadsheet, while anchor Dan Rather punched up video maps from a touch screen. ABC News correspondents looked calm as virtual graphics flew from the air and encapsuled them in cubicles of "instant" information.Is all of this part of an unspoken, but continuing effort by the networks to "dumb down" television news for a younger generation weaned on quick-cut MTV images and unable (or unwilling) to pay attention to news programming that relies on a more traditional documentary style of words and pictures? Or is it, as news executives like to say, the latest and best way to tell a story?Off the record, television news personnel burdened with the technical challenges of the new visual devices are less diplomatic than their bosses. At NBC News, the new video wall behind anchor Brokaw has been nicknamed "The Wailing Wall" because of the headaches caused by its imprecise color rendition and the increased complexity it adds to the production of the Nightly News broadcast.In an amusing off-air moment, Dan Rather's touch screen system crashed while he was demonstrating it for reporters as a preview for election night coverage. There was a palpable silence in the room as Rather only half-jokingly suggested some jobs might be lost at CBS if such a crash occurred on the air. (It didn't, though some of the computer graphics on election night were out of sync with Rather's on-air narration.)CBS News president Andrew Heyward defended his network's heavy use of computer-generated graphics and virtual sets. "These technical tools are in the service of informing the public," he said. "They are not toys. They are not gimmicks. They are tools the way a pencil and note pad are."But, with the advent of virtual sets, I asked Heyward, where do you draw the line for the viewer between what's real and what's not? "We have not thought deeply about how far you go with virtual sets," he responded. "But there's no deception here. This is obviously a computer generated set."Then Dan Rather chimed in. "We think we can be both virtual and virtuous," he said. Subject closed.A few blocks away at NBC's 30 Rockefeller Plaza studios, the video wall set -- comprised of nine stacked Pioneer rear screen projection display cubes -- has become a staple on Nightly News. Though ratings are up (no one is sure whether the wall has anything to do with it), technicians are struggling with display technology originally designed for direct public viewing rather than reproduction over television cameras.Control room tension and production complexity are running high these days as NBC tries to shape the wall into a cutting edge video set. Julian Finkelstein, director of NBC Nightly News, is leading the charge, from advance graphics preparation to on-air display."Traditionally we use over-the-shoulder graphics," Finkelstein said. "What the monitor wall does is let us enlarge the perspective a little."Has the video wall made Nightly News a better program?"That's hard to judge," Finkelstein responded. "It's made for a different show. Technically, it's a lot more complicated. There are more elements to juggle all the time, especially when it changes. You design something for the monitor wall and all of a sudden that subject doesn't exist in that segment. Now what do you do?"Another problem with the wall is shifting color rendition. "We are experimenting with the ways to put the images in and with the colors we use," Finkelstein said. "These monitors were probably made for large auditoriums and not necessarily for a camera to shoot."What we are looking for is a one-on-one," he continued, meaning that he wants the image to look on the monitor wall the same way it does in the control room on the preview display. "We haven't gotten to one-to-one yet. Some colors translate great while others like browns, golds, yellows -- yellow doesn't make it."This leads to a tedious process of averaging color for all the graphics used on a single program. For example, each image is previewed and adjusted for best color rendition on the wall. Then a new graphic comes along that needs a little more green. By adding green to that image the same amount of green is added to all the other images. By air time, all the graphics become a huge compromise of color tweaks.OK, I asked Finkelstein, even though video walls are not technically ready for prime time, why are you using them in the first place? Are you catering to an younger audience nurtured on MTV imagery?"Sure, this is what we are after," responded Finkelstein. "The generation growing up now is used to seeing a lot of images -- a lot of movement. But there's a balancing act here. How much image movement do you want behind the guy are you supposed to be listening to? I think the distraction issue is a philosophical one that we all struggle with. There's no textbook for this. We are writing the rules right now. And time will tell how it shakes out."One NBC News staffer, speaking off the record, was a bit more harsh about the video wall. "I give it a year, maybe 18 months," he said. "Then we'll be on to the next latest, greatest hot new gimmick."

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