The Message

The Joy of Sets

In late October, as the Overland fire was scorching hundreds of acres in Boulder County, several Channel 4 executives gathered in the office of news director Angie Kucharski to watch the five o'clock newscast. For the most part, they were impressed with the presentation -- until, that is, the monitor was bisected by what vice president and general manager Walt DeHaven laughingly characterizes as "the tongue of fire."

That's a pretty apt description. The program featured a vertically split screen, with footage of different blazes to the left and right. Usually the equivalent of a line divides images like these, but they were separated in this case by a flickering band of flame. The conflagration startled DeHaven, and not in a good way. "We said, 'Oh, no. Where'd that tongue of fire come from?'" he recalls.

In many ways, this negative reaction is surprising. Sure, the prancing pyre was silly, and so distracting that the average viewer probably didn't register any of the fire-update factoids anchor Molly Hughes was dispensing. Yet it was also a flashy technical feat of the sort that television broadcasts have gorged on in recent years. From the fluttering cyber-flags that are a trademark of Fox News to promotions shown during NFL games on CBS in which actors like Joe Pantoliano seem to materialize from the middle of the field, visual accents are all over television these days. The reason is obvious: Decision-makers think such gewgaws prevent TV watchers with underdeveloped attention spans from prematurely stroking their clickers.

The 4 corps: Jim Hayek, Krista Brunson and Ed 
Cushing have designs on TV news.
Brett Amole
The 4 corps: Jim Hayek, Krista Brunson and Ed Cushing have designs on TV news.

Despite the fact that Channel 4 is a CBS affiliate, DeHaven feels differently, and so, too, do the folks he's gathered around him since arriving at the station in 2002. After the execs were licked by the tongue last month, DeHaven remembers "somebody in the room saying, 'We've got to take the gee-whiz out of this. We don't want to stifle our people, but we want to stick to the things that work with what we're trying to do. And nowhere in there does the tongue of fire fit.'"

Instead, DeHaven wants a newscast that's "very big but very clean," and Viacom, CBS's parent company, was willing to foot the bill to make his vision come alive. All told, DeHaven says, around $2 million has been spent to date on "presentation values that go into the news." This process, which led to wholesale alterations in sets and graphics that debuted in early September, reveals plenty about how TV pros go about luring potential customers into their tent.

"To us, aesthetics are secondary," DeHaven insists, "but aesthetics absolutely count. Ultimately, it's a television show, and we want people to watch." He's confident that enough of them will tune in over the coming months to boost Channel 4, which trails Channel 9 in most high-profile time slots, into the position of Denver's news-ratings leader. To him, "That's a big economic incentive on the upside, because there's an opportunity to win."

With this goal in mind, DeHaven assembled a three-person squad charged with doing for Channel 4 what the Fab 5 does for clueless heterosexual men on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: bring the station into the 21st century and infuse it with some panache. Each member of the chosen trio hails from a major media center. As design director, DeHaven tabbed Jim Hayek, who'd served the same function at KCBS in Los Angeles and was previously at the now-defunct Pittard Sullivan, a high-powered L.A. design outfit. For creative- services director, he picked Ed Cushing, who worked at KPIX, a CBS-owned and -operated station in San Francisco, for eight years. And to fill the assistant news director/production role, he hired Krista Brunson, just as he did when he went to Chicago's WBBM in 2000.

WBBM has arguably been CBS's biggest underachiever for over a decade, and DeHaven was brought aboard at a particularly low moment; a hard-news format starring Carol Marin was supposed to reverse the outlet's ratings tumble but wound up doing nothing of the sort. When Marin departed, DeHaven asked Brunson to clear the slate by helping to remake the station's look. According to her, the task was much more difficult than the one she was asked to tackle at Channel 4.

"They had a ton of work to do," she says. "They really needed viewers, so we thought, 'Let's have a set that at least looks nice.' But that wasn't the thought process here. We already had a really solid TV station in Denver; in Chicago, we didn't. So we were able to do it here in a way that really made sense."

Money may have been an object along the way, but it was seldom an obstacle. Rather than rush into wholesale changes, Hayek, Cushing and Brunson took the time to gather background information. A study was conducted, in which the participants were asked to watch Channel 4 for two weeks and then give their opinions about every aspect of the newscasts. DeHaven says most of them disliked "the clubby feel of our old set. You wouldn't be surprised if you walked into somebody's basement and saw it there. Like, ŒHey, Bill Stuart, what are you doing in my basement?' They didn't get an expansive feeling from it."

From the beginning, size mattered, and to get ideas about expanding the scope of the set and graphics, a 35mm-film crew was employed to film Denver from the air. This footage was studied closely, as was "local architecture: the airport, the art museum, the library downtown," Hayek says. "It didn't take long to realize that it's a beautiful city, with this incredible natural backdrop and architecture that gave it a feel of contemporary life."

Cushing believes the various anchor desks resonate with this sense of modernity, and they are ergonomically correct as well. "We didn't build furniture and put people on it. We built the talent into it. It was built with shots in mind so we could get it to work with all the camera angles."

"It shoots bigger because the camera causes it to look larger than it is," Hayek points out. "The space isn't appreciably different than it was with the old set, but the usage is. Everything relates back to the anchors, but at the same time, it feels open and airy -- spacious."

To prevent buildings from putting a crimp in things, Hayek and company eventually decided not to utilize a skyline in their design -- a major break with TV-news tradition. "There was great debate about a cityscape," Cushing allows, "but it was a very conscious decision. We met with people from Denver and from all over Colorado, and we kept hearing the same thing: As cool as this city is, it's all about the mountains."

The final set isn't. Sure, representations of peaks run the length of the main backdrop, but they're far from towering. Although they jut modestly into wide shots during most newscasts, they tend to dissolve into others because their predominant color matches the backdrop's primary shade. Smiling, Brunson refers to the tone as "CBS blue."

Adds Hayek, "It's not a traditional blue. We made an effort not to have the same blue as everyone else has."

Indeed, the hue is lighter, subtler than the blues used by other local stations, and there's a lot more of it. Whereas Channel 9, for example, supplements its blue with reds and other hues, Channel 4 is nearly monochromatic. Hayek feels the all-encompassing quality of this blue move echoes another aspect of Colorado life. "There are over 300 days of sunshine and blue sky surrounding you here," he says, divulging that the gang of three "researched skies in different parts of the world" to arrive at the final blend. Another benefit is the way the blue showcases on-air talent. "It really brings out the skin tones," Hayek stresses. "Skin tones are warm; blue is cool. People look great against it. It makes them feel more healthy and vibrant."

That goes for everyone. In August, Denver Post television columnist Joanne Ostrow wrote that the blue "provides good contrast for (white) skin tones." Cushing says that comment "personally offended me. Erika Lewis [an African-American anchor/ reporter] looks terrific against the blue. And both Oprah and Dr. Phil have blue on their sets. It works well for them, and they don't happen to be the same color."

These effects are intensified by close-ups that have gotten even closer since the new set was installed; the tighter shots are intended to focus more intimately on personnel, prevent the blue from being too overpowering and further differentiate Channel 4 from its competitors. As a result, eyes seem to pop out of the screen in ways that vary from person to person. Anchor Tony Lopez's brown irises look enormous, almost blotting out the whites of his eyes. In contrast, the blue eyes of weekend anchor Kathy Walsh and Hughes seem to glow in ways that even Brunson didn't anticipate. "I knew Molly had blue eyes," she says, "but I didn't know she had those blue eyes."

Blue clothes were more of a problem. "This is something I talked to Angie about," Hayek concedes. "We need to please keep the anchors clear of blue, because it can be too much of a good thing."

"When the anchors first saw the set," Brunson notes, "they were saying, 'Oh, my gosh. I can't wear that anymore. And that. And that.'"

The color games continued when it came to the station logo; in the end, everyone went for gold because of the way it interacted with the blue. More important, the logo itself was switched from "News 4" to "CBS 4" -- a seemingly minor distinction that came about only after much brainstorming and soul-searching.

The "News 4" handle bothered DeHaven, because it was being used for station branding even in "Companies for Colorado" commercials that made it seem as if advertisers were being endorsed by the news department. Channel 4's previous general manager, Marv Rockford, defended the practice in these pages ("When Trouble Strikes Back," January 27, 2000), but DeHaven says, "I didn't like the thought that I had a logo and a brand attached to my news that very innocently was being spread into other areas that didn't make sense. I thought it was a muddled message." At the same time, he believed that the connection between Channel 4 and CBS, presently the most-watched major network, wasn't being emphasized strongly enough. As DeHaven puts it, "The CBS brand is one of the most recognizable in the world, and it just makes sense that if you have a brand associated with great things, you should use it. And if you look at it practically, the stations around the country that brand themselves hardest with their network tend to be the most successful."

Fortunately for Hayek, Cushing and Brunson, the CBS eye is also simple, with elegant curves that are endlessly adaptable. Hence, eyes are now all over the place. A large version shimmies and revolves in the background of word-filled info screens, and a series of smaller eyes often run vertically along the right side of the screen in the visual equivalent of backward masking. An internal survey of Channel 4 employees conducted by DeHaven, among others, helped determine the speed of the motion. The hope is that the images move fast enough to keep the viewer engaged, but not so fast as to cause dizziness or nausea. Likewise, the station's new weather gizmo, Live Doppler 4000, is intended to pack more data into the frame without devolving into the sort of vapid meteorological laserium that's all too common in this area. If it's an improvement, it's a modest one.

In other respects, Channel 4's graphics load has been noticeably reduced. The type style used when interview subjects and the like are identified is consistent from show to show (the 4 p.m. newscast once had a font all its own), and the bottom-of-the-screen update crawl that's ubiquitous on other stations is generally absent from Channel 4 unless there's large-scale breaking news. Cushing doesn't know if limiting the crawl will become a trend, but he says, "I think people are tired of the overload of information. Viewers are smart enough to know that a lot of that stuff isn't there to inform the public. It's more like, 'Hey, can we do this? We can? Well, okay, let's go. Let's put it all on there.'"

Which brings us back to the tongue of fire, an innovation whose time Brunson hopes won't come again. "We're trying to do something different here," she says. "So from now on, the watchword is 'No tongues.'"

Ted, Bob and Doug: In the marketing equivalent of Chinese water torture, United Airlines' relentless campaign to introduce Ted, its new low-cost airline, shows no sign of abating. The onslaught has dragged on for weeks, with the Rocky Mountain News's November 6 revelation of Ted's identity failing to slow the proliferation of teaser ads in the local dailies -- the Rocky included -- even though United was still trying to keep it a secret at that point. Jim Nolan, spokesman for the Denver Newspaper Agency, and Jason Schechter, a United spokesman, deny that the carrier ever considered pulling out of the News in protest of business reporter David Kesmodel's scoop -- but even if this notion crossed the minds of United honchos, doing so wouldn't have given them any satisfaction. A provision of the joint operating agreement linking the business operations of the Rocky and the Denver Post states that advertising dollars spent in either paper are shared equally. That means firms upset at the Rocky can no longer punish the publication by spending all its dollars with the Post, because the Rocky would still wind up with half the cash.

Thank you, United States Congress!

Meanwhile, over at the Post, a little piece of Canada worked its way into this month's election coverage. At www.denverpost.com, a Web page labeled "Election Central -- 4 November 2003" allowed surfers to check vote totals throughout the state by clicking on links to twenty Colorado counties or buttons pertaining to ballot initiatives or bonds. The tallies were accurate, but a couple of fine-print sentences at the page's bottom didn't add up. "This Web site was created by the Royal Canadian Institute for Computer Hosers," the item read. "Take off, eh."

Clearly, this is a reference to Bob and Doug McKenzie, a pair of beer-guzzling brothers from the Great White North whom actors Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis created for the cult sketch-comedy show SCTV; Thomas and Moranis basically reprise the bit in the Disney animated flick Brother Bear. What's less plain is what the gag was doing on the Post site. Gil Asakawa, a former Westword music editor who's now the executive producer for development and production at Denver Post Online, investigated, and he learned that the lines were a "stamp code" that one of the department's wittier staffers puts on pages he creates. The stamp is routinely removed before a page goes live, but was missed in this instance.

Guess that "Take off, eh" was meant more literally than it seemed.

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