Tech Race 2012: Networks Prepare for Info Deluge

WASHINGTON and NEW YORK -- Broadcast and cable news organizations are equipping themselves with newer technologies that will play a much larger role in the 2012 election cycle than they did in 2008, when smartphones, social media, apps, touch screens, virtual graphics and streaming media technologies were far less popular. Several bigger trends in election tech can be seen at CNN’s new control center, shown at left—which covers about 1,250 square feet—and the new studios the network has deployed in Washington, D.C. Both were designed to handle massive amounts of feeds and data, as well the large monitor walls and sophisticated graphics that will play a key role in its political and election coverage.

“The most important thing on election night is for our anchors to have the tools they need to explain what is happening, and why Obama may be winning one state and Romney another,” said Sam Feist, Washington bureau chief and senior vice president at CNN.

To achieve that goal, the new Washington, D.C. studio, “has 270-degrees worth of video monitors that will give us a very large canvas on which to display information,” he said. These include two Perceptive Pixel Magic Walls with touch screens for displaying data.

The control room has also been designed to handle a large amount of monitors and feeds. It’s equipped with Sony’s MVS-8000 production switcher, Vizrt graphics systems, Vista’s Spyder system to control the studio monitor walls, Evertz for handling the monitor walls inside the control room and TV Logic to control producer monitoring.

Augmented reality or immersive graphics systems, which allow virtual monitors and other graphical elements to be inserted in real sets, will also figure prominently on election night. CNN used those technologies during the primaries, Feist said, and they will be seen on other networks as well.

“Many of our clients, especially the large networks and the news organizations, will use some virtual or augmented reality for their coverage,” said Isaac Hersly, president of Vizrt Americas.

In addition to the lavish graphics and special effects of election nights, the networks will also use streamlined workflows and smaller, less expensive cameras and technologies to produce much more content for multiple platforms.

At the conventions, for example, Tim Gaughan, senior producer of special events at CBS News, said his network used a mix of union photographers behind more traditional large-sensor broadcast cameras, and journalists equipped with a variety of prosumer HD camcorders to feed material to multiple platforms.

“We are at the point now at CBS where you are a multimedia journalist no matter what department you actually report to,” he said. “When you are dispatched to cover a news event, you’ll approach it with the mindset of a multimedia journalist who is going to serve all platforms.”

“For the first time for this election you’ll see us delivering a big multiscreen experience that ties all the devices together.” – Joe Ruffolo, ABC News Digital

As part of that effort, all the broadcast networks extensively used one-person crews throughout the primaries. NBC embedded a number of these reporters with candidates, said Ryan Osborn, senior director of digital media at NBC News. They were generally equipped with smaller Sony HVR-Z5 cameras and LiveU’s backpacks that allowed them to send back HD video for both broadcast and digital platforms. Such efforts are enabling the networks to dramatically boost the amount of live streaming coverage they supply for the Web and mobile devices.

During the conventions, ABC News’ digital operation streamed fourand- a-half hours a day of coverage from a dedicated studio as part of its partnership with Yahoo, and streaming will play a major role in their coverage in the run-up to election night, according to Joe Ruffolo, senior vice president of ABC News Digital.

Ruffolo also stressed they will be looking to more closely integrate their coverage across devices. “For the first time for this election you’ll see us delivering a big multiscreen experience that ties all the devices together,” he notes.

Social media will be a central part of those digital efforts as well. For its election coverage, NBC has been using the Mass Relevance social integration platform to filter social media results, and did a trial run with Crimson Hexagon, which does sentiment analysis of social media posts that highlights trends in the social conversation.

During the primaries, NBC also formed a partnership with Foursquare to look at the data as Republican candidates checked into various locations during the primary, and Osborn expects more location-based tools to be used in their election coverage.

“In a very short period of time, social media has become an integral part of the news gathering operation,” Osborn said. But he also emphasized that “nothing beats humans. As important as it is to have tools to sort through it and to have the workflows so we can get that to any screen, our editorial minds provide the real differentiator.”

“As important as it is to have tools… our editorial minds provide the real differentiator.” – Ryan Osborn, NBC News

That was also the message concerning vote-counting and race-calling efforts.

The members of the National Election Pool, which include the Associated Press and the major broadcast and cable networks, declined to discuss how they were working to improve the exit polls used in election coverage, saying it was too early to describe those systems.

Mike Oreskes, senior managing editor for U.S. News at the Associated Press, said that they have been working all year to prepare for their vote counts on election night, and have been upgrading their internally developed software and servers.

On Election Day, the AP will have about 5,000 stringers collecting vote tabulations from precincts, and around 500 entry clerks punching in the numbers. Two different people with extensive knowledge of each state are involved in calling the races, he adds, using actual vote tallies and exit and phone polls.

“It is rare we will call something primarily based on exit polls,” Oreskes said. “At the end of the day, it is still a human effort because it is not something you can automate.”

George Winslow is the senior content producer for TV Tech. He has written about the television, media and technology industries for nearly 30 years for such publications as Broadcasting & Cable, Multichannel News and TV Tech. Over the years, he has edited a number of magazines, including Multichannel News International and World Screen, and moderated panels at such major industry events as NAB and MIP TV. He has published two books and dozens of encyclopedia articles on such subjects as the media, New York City history and economics.