News graphics evolve

Developments in television news graphics are keeping pace with the other sweeping changes affecting news workflow, formats and delivery options.

Driven by the desire to maximize efficiency, control costs and guarantee a consistent level of quality, some station groups continue to implement a centralized graphics workflow. For instance, Media General Broadcast Group announced in August that it was adopting a centralized graphics workflow headquartered in Richmond, VA, for its news, marketing, sales and special projects departments at its 23 network affiliate TV stations. Relying on a template-based graphics workflow, Media General expects to complete the transition by the end of the year.

The march towards HD newscast also is affecting stations as they grapple with creating graphics for a dual standard- and high-definition audience. Some, such as CNBC HD and the soon-to-launch Fox Business Channel, are even looking at ways to move beyond the center-cut-with-wings-attached format to take advantage of new ways to configure their screen real estate.

New approaches to TV graphics for the small screen — cell phones and mobile devices — as well as the station's Internet sites, are also emerging. Add to these the way stations will handle election graphics in 2008, and it's clear the TV news graphics will remain a dynamic sector for the foreseeable future.

Acquire and interact

Data acquisition technology that allows newsroom graphics systems to collect vote totals from election reporting services and automatically generate graphics based on the numbers is a mainstay of election night graphics. However, even this mature technology is being tweaked and improved.

“We are always finding ways to get data into our system faster,” says Isaac Hersly, president of Vizrt Americas. “We also are seeing that more of this data can be previewed first and then viewed on desktops within the newsroom systems.”

These new preview capabilities give producers responsible for races the ability to look at the results close to real time.

“They can set that up and enter it into the playlist,” Hersley says, “so the production tools have a higher value now, and the content can really be previewed before it goes to air.”

More appealing election graphics are also headed for local stations, according to Hersly.

“The networks have always had the infrastructure to create a sophisticated line of graphics,” he says. “Now, the smaller local stations — with local news revenue being so important — are upgrading to be able to present sophisticated graphics.”

Local stations are looking to add interactivity with their election graphics that will allow anchors and reporters to call up race results, do comparisons and visually demonstrate election scenarios with the simple touch of a flat-panel display or video wall, Hersly says.

“They can use a standard touch screen, which can be mounted over a standard flat-screen monitor,” he says. “We can assist them, train them or show them how they can set up interactivity on that screen. It's real easy if you think about it. Instead of using a mouse click at your desktop, you are using your finger by pointing and clicking and causing a reaction or an interaction on the screen.”

Interactivity is consistent with a broader trend Vizrt has identified, he explains.

“Most of our clients feel that the anchor or the anchors should now be embedded within the graphic to tell the story, so there's no cut-away to a full screen of graphics,” Hersly says. “The anchor is still somewhat in your face, which is a good thing because a lot of folks like that personality delivering the information and whatever graphics accompany that story.”

Mobile TV, the Internet & high definition

As television newsrooms have gotten serious about delivering content to cell phones, handheld devices and the Internet, graphics vendors are responding with ways to help them carry over their on-air look to these new platforms. For example, Vizrt last year unveiled its MPS multiplatform suite, which lets broadcasters take advantage of the computing resources in the hands or on the desks of consumers to achieve that consistency.

However, it's been slow going on the cell phone front for MPS because “the performance of the phone networks in this country is not where it should be,” according to Hersly. However, recent announcements of cell phones with on-board graphics mean help is on the way. Even today's cell phones can handle the difference between's the horizontal aspect ratio of TV and their own vertical orientation.

“Remember, there is code running on these mobile devices,” says Ed Casaccia, director of product management & marketing for Thomson Grass Valley Digital News Production. “They are not like a television set that's just a receiver. So, in your delivery you can become much more agnostic by sending the same thing everywhere but telling each device how to display it. If you send the same data every place but you tell the device, ‘Here's the crucial area of interest,’ we have the technology to define the area of interest and pass that along as data so that a phone with a vertically oriented aspect ratio can know what to do.”

Graphics-rich PCs are a different story entirely. Millions already have the graphics processing power on board to generate on-the-fly news graphics sent as data along with a station's video stream via the Internet.

“We have a version of our software that puts our Viz engine in a PC and lets us create graphics locally, and those graphics can be targeted to known consumer preference,” Hersly says.

On the big screen side of the equation, the growth of HD graphics systems deliveries in the United States is tracking the increasing number of local stations on-air with HD local news, which currently is estimated to be between 50 and 60 stations. According to Hersly, 85 percent of the Vizrt graphics systems being shipped today in the United States are high definition.

“We are finding that local stations — be it in the top 10 markets or even the top 50 markets — most of them when they do order today are asking for HD, and it's not that they were planning to do it down the road,” he says. “It's a relatively immediate use of HD.”

According to Hersly, stations are adapting well to HD's wider aspect ratio and the need to simulcast standard- and high-definition channels.

“We are not having too many issues vis-à-vis SD and HD graphics, once they get the hang of it,” he says.