(A ChyronHego – Hybrid – FX Design Group Case Study)
WBTV, the Raycom CBS affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina, recently became the news ratings leader in the market with a timeslot sweep for all newscasts. While working hard over the past 26 years to regain the number one position, WBTV started closing the gap over the past two years, with timeslot wins beginning in late 2015.
Dennis Milligan, WBTV’s Director of News and Content has been working towards this goal for the past 15 years, with part of the strategy over the last 18 months devoted to an added emphasis on the “On Your Side” investigative and consumer stories, and a half-million dollar investment in a new news set. But this was no regular news set upgrade.
“The first priority two years ago was to secure the best, most robust hard set that we could get. We wanted to push the visual nature of TV in the market to new levels,” said Milligan. During the eight year lifespan of the previous set, WBTV’s competitors had introduced their own new sets, “making us look a little old, so a cutting edge hard set was the goal,” explained Milligan.
But during this process, parent company Raycom Media had heard about and wanted to experiment with sets in the virtual environment (also known as soft sets). So experiment they did.
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
In October 2014, FX Design Group worked with WBTV to design and install a temporary virtual set using the Neon trackless virtual set system from Hybrid for the station’s November 2014 election coverage. After a four-day installation and rehearsals, the set went live on-air — the experiment was a success.
With Raycom’s interest in virtual sets growing and Milligan’s need for the “biggest, baddest hard set in the market”, the decision was made to combine the two for WBTV’s new look. FX Design Group was tapped for both the hard and virtual set design, as well as the lighting design, installation, and focus for both.
Hybrid’s Neon was chosen again as it’s a sensor-less virtual set solution based on using fixed cameras shooting a Chroma Key screen, with all camera moves — such as rolls, pans, and travelling and crane movements, all happening in virtual space.
The hard set would occupy WBTV’s primary50x60 foot studio and include a 4×6 46-inchmonitor multi-screen array that serves as both the anchor desk’s main backdrop and as a standing presentation area. In addition, there would be an 80-inch monitor for reporters and a 90-inch monitor for the weather team, plus their green screen.
The virtual set would occupy a 40×50 foot studio(connected side-by-side to the main studio through double doors) with a 24-foot long curved green screen — large enough for three people with cross shots — and monitors placed so that anchors and reporters could see the full virtual set output and their place within the virtual world.
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE OLD
Of course, you can’t build a hard set overnight, so WBTV made use of a third studio, typically used for commercial production, moving the old news set for the two months needed for hard set construction.
“The team literally picked up the old set and moved it to the new studio in half a day starting Saturday morning,” said Milligan. “We had enough pieces that we physically moved to create an environment that made it difficult for folks to realize what we had done, with just some limits on camera shots all in time for our 6:00pm newscast. That is a testament to our production and engineering teams.”
While hard set construction was progressing, the virtual sets were being designed. The concept behind using a virtual set for news is fairly simple: while there’s more competition for viewers, virtual can provide more engaging content and help fight audience fatigue from looking at the same set throughout the newscast and from newscast to newscast. “The content is basically the same between stations,” said Milligan. “What changes is how you tell the story.”
Nevertheless, telling that story on any set can’t be complex. With Neon, the level of operation and crew size remained the same, as operators needed only basic graphics and video production skills. This meant that WBTV could have as many locations or looks as they needed, in one physical location — starting with three set designs from FX Design Group.
AND IN THREE, TWO…
After eight years on their old set and having had a taste of the virtual world during election coverage, everyone was ready for both a new hard set and its sister virtual set.
“We’ve found learning the virtual set easy for most of our on-air talent, with a couple of minor exceptions, “explained Milligan. “It’s very different from a hard set, with the biggest learning curve being where talent can be on the wall, where the physical reference monitors are, and where any virtual monitors built into the set showing reporters, video, graphics, social media or even another virtual set inside the main virtual set are located. It took a little bit of time, but they figured it out quickly.”
There’s also a learning curve behind the scenes. “It’s new technology, so two of our directors are now virtual gurus having deeply trained in the environment and having worked closely with Hybrid to learn the X-Y-Z world of the virtual realm.”
In addition to its regular newscasts, WBTV’s Friday high school football program is produced using mostly the virtual set. “It’s a little more challenging to use virtual for almost an entire program, but it looks cool,” boasts Milligan.
VIRTUAL RESULTS IN THE REAL WORLD
While WBTV spent years to regain its number one position in Charlotte with new personalities, content adjustments, and marketing, a lot of things had to come together for WBTV to have the number one newscasts again. Just how much of that can be credited to using a virtual set?
Milligan’s answer is simple and pragmatic…”10 percent.
You don’t overtake a 26-year dominant station with just a new set. It takes a lot of building to get to number one over many years. We had a very extensive strategic plan, of which the new set was one part of that plan.”
That being said, Milligan believes that his newscast looks bigger and better than anyone else’s in the market. Raycom obviously agrees. Since their experience at WBTV, they have installed a second Hybrid Neon virtual set at WVUE in New Orleans, Louisiana with a commitment for a third at KFVS in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
ChyronHego, through an OEM partnership, is working with Hybrid to develop and market solutions based on Hybrid’s line of advanced tracking and trackless virtual studio and robotic camera head technologies.