Center of Attention

Fox News' Command Center Is A Popular Screen Gem For Viewers
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NEW YORK — It’s the “Jerry’s World” AT&T Stadium mega-screen of the network news sector. It’s part Roger Waters, part touch screen from Minority Report. It’ll make you run short of adjectives.

“It” is the set for Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith Reporting. The signature studio, unveiled with much fanfare last Oct. 7, is a “command center” that integrates real-time news feeds, digital media newsgathering and state-of-the-art technology. It’s also the home for FNC’s breaking news coverage.

The multimillion-dollar “Fox News Deck” showcases an array of elements, notably “The Monster,” a 7-footby- 38-foot wrap module comprising 144 DLP rear projector cubes. It is often split into three large images, with Smith conducting remote-screen interviews at the left panel. Meanwhile, “The Wall” spans 12 feet by 21 feet, comprises 27 LCD screens and often provides a backdrop view of Sixth Avenue outside 21st Century Fox’s New York headquarters.

Then there’s “The Data Ribbon,” a band of 18 29- inch LCD displays that stretch for a combined 72 feet in a 180-degree arc, and a dozen BATS (big-area touch screens), 55-inch multiscreen monitors/workstations, where producers/information specialists deploy custom “platform” software for newsgathering and social media.

Camera operators pan the room, revealing the show’s producers in action and its anchor on the move from screen to screen, monitor to monitor. It’s a visual crush that turns previous election-night highlights, map technology and holograms into so much news tickertape. And that’s the point: It has given Fox News a splashy home in its perch as the No. 1 cable news outlet, while showcasing Smith’s vaunted spot as anchor.

The Fox News Deck was borne in reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, as the crush of social media had traditional news outlets trailing men and women on the streets.

That’s no longer the case. “They have given us everything that there is,” Smith said. “We have ties with companies all over the country and around the world. We have the very best filtering software, the hardware, and the best people we’ve been able to find anywhere on earth. We have been out in front of every major breaking story since this thing went down and plan to keep it that way. And we haven’t made any big screw-ups, either.”

The multimillion-dollar investment is working. During the first quarter, Shepard Smith Reporting grew 10%, to an average 1.18 million viewers from 1.07 million for predecessor Studio B With Shepard Smith, according to Nielsen data. That delivery topped the combined audience of CNN, MSNBC and HLN in the same period. In the preferred news demo, adults 25 to 54, Shepard Smith Reporting averaged 205,000 viewers, 5% more than the 195,000 he posted last year, to beat all news-sector competitors.

TECH SPECS

Jonathan Glenn, senior producer, said the BATS employ touch-screen delivery and house “dozens upon dozens” of elements that can be used in the daily newscasts, including entries for social-media favorites such as Twitter, Vine and Instagram. “It’s how a lot of people start to get their news today,” Glenn said. “We can geo-landmark the tweets and reach out to the most salient feed.”

In addition to their newsgathering capabilities, the expansive computer screens serve as workstations and on-air visual props. “Shep has the ability to call out and then call up any screen,” Glenn said.

That functionality and the screens keep Smith on his toes, literally and figuratively.

“I really didn’t think that we were going to be able to maneuver ourselves around this environment and use it as effectively as we were planning,” Smith said. “[But] it all worked like we hoped it would.”

Perhaps it would be easier if Smith wore Nikes to navigate the set; no one would see them on-air.

“Mr. [Fox News chairman and CEO Roger] Ailes would,” Smith said, with a laugh. “We wear ties and hard-soled shoes at the Fox News Channel.”

With both Smith and the news constantly on the move, the set allows for a more nimble presentation. “It’s so much faster,” Smith said of the newsgathering process. “We’re able to get elements to the screen and contributors in and newsmakers from wherever things are happening at speeds that we really never could have dreamed of before. And as a result we can change on a dime.”

A DAY IN THE LIFE

A set visit on a typical day — in this case, April 15 — proves that notion, offering a demonstration of moving parts that make the machine function seamlessly.

The show opens with Ukranian forces striking back against the Russians for the first time. From left to right on the three-panel, 38-foot monster: images of citizen unrest, a map of the area and video of the troops.

Smith conducts on-screen panel interviews with a former FBI agent, as well as Fox correspondent Mike Tobin, who weighs in from Chicago on the hate crime shootings at a Jewish center in Johnson County, Kan.

After a segment about a pair of California serial killers, there is an anchor call out to a producer — “What do we got, Robbie?” — on raging wildfires in California. A segment later, Smith’s on the move again, approaching one of the BATS as the story begins with news that 2,500 homes in Sacramento have been impacted by the wildfire. There’s an overhead view of the area, where one can see smoke rising. The images slide across the touch screens and on to the main viewing screen.

The show’s rundown turns to speeches and moments of silence commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. After pulling up the images via wand and gesture-based tracking technology from Oblong, Smith presides over a slide show, describing how the victims of the bombings have progressed over the past year: a ballerina performing with an artificial leg; college graduates at last year’s commencement ceremony; a fitting for a prosthetic appendage; and a man dribbling a ball during a physical therapy session.

Meanwhile, not everything is high-tech: Stagehands still adjust the heights of chairs for a rolling list of guests. The April 15 roster includes general assignment reporter Lea Gabrielle, a former fighter pilot, discussing the escalating situation in the Ukraine; legal analyst Mercedes Colwin, assessing the latest in the Oscar Pistorius murder case and how fi rmly his defense should be instructing him not to cry all the time; and Fox Business Network’s Gerri Willis, who provides tax tips on what Smith has jokingly labeled the “best day of the year.”

During the last commercial break of the afternoon, Smith salutes a cameraman, who’s off to work for news website The Blaze. “We should have made him full-time staff ,” he lamented.

After a humorous segment about a dog that was sent a notice to serve jury duty, and noting that it’s the 102nd anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, Smith, who had been aurally tipped by a producer a couple of minutes earlier, closes the show by reporting on the stock market’s surge, as the averages appear on The Wall.

It was a good show, Smith said: “We got in and out, didn’t go over.”

Watching from on the set, it’s impossible to stop checking out all the screens in constant motion, much as one would at a concert or a ballgame: in essence, watching the telecast on the TVs instead of live.

“It happens to me, too,” Smith said.

If Fox News Channel keeps getting its wish, that’s exactly what viewers will continue to do as well.

Fox News Desk Specs

Among the featured components on the set: 

“The Monster”: 7-foot-by-38-foot wraparound comprising 144 DLP rear projector cubes. 

“The Wall”: Standing 12 feet by 21 feet, this area is illuminated by 27 LCD displays. 

“ The Data Ribbon”: Spans 180 degrees, with 18 29-inch LCD TV screens stretching for 72 feet. 

“ BATS”: A dozen, 55-inch multi-touch screens with custom soft ware for newsgathering and social media for information specialists. 

Slideshow: Think Minority Report: wand and gesture-based tracking technology from Oblong. 

The Platform: Custom soft ware used by Fox News Deck info specialists for workflow purposes. 

News Data: On average, info specialists gather 65 newsworthy media elements of varied content for daily on-air use

— Mike Reynolds

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