Virtual architecture: Kevin Newman moves to Ottawa
A couple of years ago, I was introduced to the concept of power and security being expressed through the architecture of nineteenth and early twentieth century British banks. In an age when architectural languages were decidedly more monosyllabic, banks would ensure that their branches projected a bold, strong and ultimately secure impression on the people passing in the street. Above is a photograph of the United Counties Bank in central Sheffield, photographed some time around 1909. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the man crossing the tram tracks on the bottom left of the photograph, and you can understand why the United Counties would have impressed you as a safe place to entrust your money. It just looks safe because of the heavy, permanent and solid architecture.
I have a theory that a similar concept can be applied to the architecture of television news rooms. Although it hasn’t come up in my own studies to date, I’ve been working around some ideas on the side, and something deeper and perhaps more academic could emerge from this in the months or years to come.
In this modern day, we are often assured that knowledge equals power. With the reach and diversity of internet and mobile telephony spreading into our lives, we are now capable of leading incredibly knowledge-intensive lifestyles. For instance, this morning I wanted to discover the area covered by all the Schengen countries in Europe. It took me less than six seconds at a computer to discover the statistic (4,268,633 km², if you’re interested).
The traditional suppliers of knowledge are the outlets of the mainstream media, and it is in the television newsroom that architecture and knowledge have come together. For more than fifty years we have become used to the visual arrangement of a man or woman sitting behind a desk in view of a camera reading us the news. Here in the UK, John Craven was the first newsreader to stand up and move around his studio during a newscast in the early eighties (BBC Newsround, a short bulletin for children that still runs every weekday to this day) inspiring Kirsty Young to do the same thing with a bit more panache on the young Five News several decades later.
The sets have gradually become more and more complex, with rolling news channels such as CNN in the USA and Sky in the UK building increasingly complex structures with different levels and depths that combine the video recording of news with real or staged office environments. We are now subconciously assured that if we can see people beavering away in an office behind the newsreader, then this news team is obviously well staffed and up to the job. I could go on – because this is an interesting and largely unexplored strand of architecture. However, here’s an interesting development from that big old country I used to live in – Canada.
Here’s Tara Nelson opening Monday night’s Global National. That might sound like a contradictory name for a newscast to be called, but it’s because it’s the only newscast on the Global Network that is broadcast nationally across the country. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have a similar programme later in the evening which is simply called The National. But I digress. Note the set. A modest construction with flat screen televisions and a liberal application of the Global > motif (apparently suggesting that Global is ‘greater than’ everyone else…). The use of an wide and acute camera angle in this opening pan shot sets the scene before a second camera closes in on the anchor, suggesting a much larger space than there actually is in the studio. Once we focus in on her, we can see a busy newsroom behind an apparently frosted glass wall, with flickering TV and computer screens and fuzzy figures moving about.
So we have scale and depth. A small corner set is made to look much bigger, and the connection between newsroom and studio (which for all I know, may not even be physically there) can be suggested by a back projection that looks like a window. But this set is no more, or at least not for Global National. Until this week, the set was shared with a local newscast in British Columbia, making for a hectic switchover between national and local broadcasts throughout the day. Searching for some kudos for being the only newscast from the nation’s capital, the network has moved its national newscast to studios in Ottawa.
And here is Kevin Newman, in the new set. But here’s the clever bit. Actual interior architecture is no longer needed. Apart from the desk behind which Kevin is seated, the entire set is computer generated. This has been done before, most notably in the UK by the old blue BBC news set and the current ITV news studio, which features an almost terrifying virtual wall that can induce nausea and vertigo in one quick swoop from a view over London to a wall of outside broadcast shots.
Moving The National to Ottawa hasn’t required as many moving vans as you might think. Not only is the set virtual, the entire broadcast is still being produced by the team in Vancouver, almost 5,000km away. They cue up the reports, control the cameras and wrap the production. Only Kevin Newman and a skeleton staff of studio hands needs to be in Ottawa, allowing the programme to continue being produced by the same people without any expensive relocation costs (other Mr. Newman’s, of course). Another trick played by the new virtual set is that of scale. Clever camera angles are no longer needed to fool the eye into thinking that the set is bigger than it actually is. The only problems noticeable in the first broadcast from Ottawa were hard studio echoes (probably caused by a room painted entirely green with no absorbant surfaces) and some squashing of that Global > logo – no doubt an expensive graphic designer will be on the phone insisting that it’s returned to its ‘correct’ proportions.
But it does seem that the computer programmers have been getting a little carried away with the perspective tools…
…”Hey! Look how big our hard drives are! There’s his desk! All the way over there!”
If the set is virtual, the production team is in Vancouver and the picture of Parliament Hill behind the anchor is edited in virtually, does it even matter that the programme is filmed in Ottawa? Couldn’t all this have been achieved in front of a green screen in Vancouver? Newman assures us that this will allow a much greater contact with the day to day activities in the Candian parliament, and that all this is the application of decentralised news production.
This suggests an important shift in the use of interior architecture in the delivery of television news. The design and form is still important, but it is now easier, more cost effective and more sustainable to build a news studio in a computer. And this apparent lack of actual place has allowed a news team to move its anchor to be ‘closer to the action’. The freedom of virtual architecture promises some interesting developments in the way our news rooms look and feel, and the way that the news is presented to us.