Centralized graphics production does the heavy lifting for Media General on Election Day 2008

When all of the votes have been counted and the presidential and local elections are over, no matter who wins, no one will be happier than Jim Doyle, general manager of Media General’s MGFX graphics production division in Richmond, VA.

That’s because Doyle and his team at the centralized graphics hub, which produces on-air graphic templates for 16 of its 18 stations located throughout the Southeast, have been working on a variety of election 2008 designs since the political primaries in June. It was then that the team began working closely with three of its stations to develop a template-based package of graphic looks that would serve all of its stations. The new packages aired during that time on pilot stations WSAV-DT in Savannah, GA; WCMH-DT in Columbus, OH; and WVTM-DT, in Birmingham, AL, and enabled all of Media General’s stations to provide feedback.

Media General has partnered with the Associated Press to leverage AP’s ENPS newsroom computer system and an element of that called AP STATS. This software was designed for displaying up-to-the-minute graphics mined from data stored with ENPS. Using metadata, it also automatically picks the correct headshot or other graphic element to go with it.

Localized elements pertinent to a specific region are stored at the station level, as well as on the company’s central server (a Vertigo XMS with 1.2TB of capacity) where it sits as a backup. At MGFX they’ve logged all of the candidate headshots into the storage system for Election Day and made sure the naming conventions were correct, so that the data miner software will output the correct picture when requested. Using the MOS newsroom protocol, graphics are delivered and displayed with very little human intervention.

“The AP STATS application serves us well because it interfaces seamlessly with some of our legacy system at the stations as well as new infrastructure that we’ve rolled out at 10 of our stations,” Doyle said. “It saves a lot of time and our stations now have the capacity to get graphics to air faster than anyone in their respective markets. And we do all of the heavy lifting for them, so they can focus their resources on content.”

This new infrastructure includes data management features within Miranda Technologies’ Vertigo Xmedia servers, which store and display data extracted from SQL databases, XML spreadsheets and other types of information. The AP has developed a customized application for Media General that works with the Vertigo Xmedia servers and allows the stations to tap into a database and create automated election results. Using Miranda’s work order management system, stations can request additional graphics as needed throughout the year and have them created in Richmond.

The data is automatically loaded into the Vertigo servers, one at each participating station, and then streamed into a prebuilt template for on-air display. Graphics templates created with Miranda Xstudio authoring software are configured to support Miranda Vertigo XG processors. Other Media General stations using legacy Chyron HyperX and Avid FX Deko character generation systems will rely on the traditional serial STATS interface.

On Election Day the news teams at the various stations won’t even have to think about the design; the data is instantly sized and formatted to fit the on-screen space, just as it does in a normal newscast. The information is pulled from the database as the graphic is cued to go on-air, allowing the stations to display late-breaking results quickly.

What the MGFX team — led by senior graphics designer Phillip Mathers (who worked with Miranda to develop the templates) — has come up with is a comprehensive package that includes every type of on-air graphic element required: from over-the-shoulder headshots to 3-D maps, lower third tickers, squeezes, full-screen results, opens, program bumpers and teases.

With some training a week before Election Day (when the graphic templates were electronically delivered), stations are now incorporating the stunning graphics into their newscasts. The stations are using the same platform to produce election results for both the local and national contests. Although they are bound by the predetermined templates developed at MGFX, each station can input different stats in various ways to customize the look for its specific market.

John Atteberry, director of operations at MGFX, said this tight integration enables the stations to tap into the same interface they normally use for their daily newscasts to produce national and local election graphics. This supports Media General’s overall strategy of making the most of available resources and keeping costs to a minimum. None of the Media General stations have an art director or graphic artist on staff dedicated to news or marketing graphics production. All graphics design and production happens at the MGFX facility in Richmond.

“However each station wants to enter STATS, it all goes into the same template and ends up being one single workflow for everyone involved,” Atteberry said. “We’ve made the process easy to navigate and really bullet proof. And we’re finding that for this election stations will offer more graphic elements than they ever have before.”

This remotely produced, totally automated graphics process has allowed Media General stations to relay the final numbers with a speed and efficiency they never could before. The company is now pursuing options to monetize the prebuilt graphics, once the election is over.

Then maybe Doyle and his team can get some sleep.

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