Lighting to deadline: The Fox News Channel airs around the clock with a turnkey package


One of the programming phenomena associated with the cable era is the rise of the 24-hour news channel, led by such networks as CNN and CNBC. The newest on the scene is the Fox News Channel, which has been broadcasting since last October from a studio complex in the Rockefeller Center area of midtown Manhattan. Ironically, the Fox News Channel is not available to most New York cable subscribers, whose carrier, Time Warner, is a Fox competitor. Nevertheless, the Big Apple location is central to the network's identity. Following the Today show's lead, two of the site's four studio areas have windows to the street, through which passersby can look in on news broadcasts and on more in-depth programming. National television viewers can likewise get periodic glimpses of the city that never sleeps.

There are numerous lighting considerations to take into account when designing such a space, a task that fell to New York City Lites (NYCL). "In the studios with windows, we have to deal with sunlight," says Bruce Ferri, co-designer on the project with NYCL head Deke Hazirjian. "And it's on 24 hours, so at some point the sunlight goes away, and we have to deal with nighttime." The around-the-clock schedule also raises other concerns. "When you're going 24 hours, lamp replacement isn't necessarily something you get to do all the time," says project manager Fred Bock. "And aside from maintenance, there are also heat issues."

Which leads to an increasingly familiar solution in news programming--compact fluorescents (CFLs). But according to Bock, "We have our own particular style of how we use compact fluorescents. We use them as just another tool for the job, if it makes sense." This sentiment is echoed by Ferri: "It's just another light," he says. "It's an energy-efficient soft light. Some people think if you're using fluorescents, you use all fluorescents, and no tungsten at all. And that's a flat, uninteresting picture--there's no key, no punch. Consequently, that's put a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths about fluorescent lighting. Back when they were first coming out, you couldn't color-balance a fluorescent with a tungsten light, unless you started adding gel. The lights that are available now are color-corrected and balanced for tungsten."

New York City Lites has turned to LightTech compact fluorescent units for the Fox project, partly because of what Ferri sees as an engineering superiority. "The color rendering of a tungsten picture is like a curve that goes through all the colors of the spectrum," Ferri explains. "Fluorescents are spiky, and in the low points of the spikes is the absence of color. Those spikes can be pretty dramatic, and if the lamp lacks red, for instance, when you light a person's face that has red in it, it looks bad; it's hard for the engineer to make it look proper. With the lamps that LightTech uses, the spikes aren't as dramatic, so it's easier to get the colors rendered properly."

But in all four Fox News Channel studios, the LD stresses once again that fluorescents are just one of several kinds of light. "We use soft lights, fresnels, ellipsoidals, PARs, set lights, practicals--it's all in your toolbox to make a picture look good," he says.

In Studio A, the main news studio, CFL 255s and a few 455s--containing two and four 55W lamps, respectively--share the grid with ETC Source Fours and PARs, 1k and 650W Arri fresnels, Baby 2ks, and one Studio 2k, the largest unit at the station. Because of the highly sensitive CCD chip cameras, "1k is now standard, 650 is even standard," says Ferri. The use of fluorescents has also interfaced nicely with the rise of the chip camera; both technologies have surged in the past five years.

But because of several challenges presented by the 30'x50' (9x15m) Studio A, which has windows onto Avenue of the Americas on one wall, and 48th Street on another, greater brightness was required. "We had to be pretty conscious about not hanging lights in front of the windows," the LD explains. "We had to back things off and get them up out of the way, so we had to go for brighter lights." Thus, many of the CFLs are fitted with intensifying reflectors, which can nearly double output. The 2k is useful "because during the day, we have to gel the lights with blue, and that cuts the transmission." Even though the windows have shades graded at 30% and 60%, adds Ferri, "we have a lot of light coming in."

There is another "wrinkle" in Studio A: "We put in two systems, a daylight and a nighttime system," says Ferri. Hazirjian says this is not a necessity for the TV cameras or the home audience. "There was no reason technically to go to a tungsten look at night," he says. "Even with the 5200K or 5700K daylight units, they can make pictures just as well at night." Rather, it is a consideration for the live spectators looking in the windows. "The news studio doesn't use the outside as background, it uses it for people to look in, to generate interest," Ferri says. "When it turned to night, we didn't want the people looking from outside to see a studio that was blue because it was balanced for daytime. We wanted to go to an incandescent look to make it look normal." Hazirjian adds that "talent comfort and psychology" is also a big issue. "At night, when you come from incandescent offices and hallways into a studio that's lit daylight, it feels cold."

The changeover occurs when one of the other Fox News Channel studios is on the air; news is broadcast from Studio A for 10 minutes every half-hour, and more in-depth coverage or scheduled programming from elsewhere fills up the remaining time. The cameras are equipped with scene files that are switched by the master control room downstairs as night falls. The change is largely undetectable to the TV audience, Ferri says: "The only thing you may notice is, since we have a lot of light during the day, it tends to wash the set out a bit. At night, the set is slightly more colorful, and the talent pops out a little bit more."

Studio B, at roughly 60'x40' (18x12m), is the largest Fox News Channel studio, and the home base for most of the discussion and elaboration on the preceding newscast. "They get experts to go in-depth about what you heard in the last 10 minutes," Ferri says of the format. There are different broadcasting positions in the studio, and unlike the setup in Studio A, windows on two walls can serve as a background to the programming. A dual system was not practical in this studio, says Hazirjian: "So many shows turn around in there, and there's not enough room in the air, let alone enough circuiting." Despite the windows, Studio B is not balanced for daylight. "We split the difference, and put half-CTO on the windows," says Hazirjian. "Since the cameras are corrected for quartz inside, the outside looks a little more blue. But actually that works--it looks more real in a way, more live. When it's not fully in focus, and it's just a background behind talent, that blue background is more pleasant; flesh tones read better." It helps that Studio B is further away from the street than Studio A, and most direct light is blocked by skyscrapers.

Initially, the concept was to use Studio B for a talk-show format with an audience. An order was made accordingly to Production Arts Lighting, supplier on the project. "We had a lot of 2ks, and there isn't one 2k left in that studio," says Ferri. Instead, the most plentiful instruments are 1k and 650W fresnels, Source Fours, and PAR-64s, along with a smaller package of compact fluorescents. "Production Arts was gracious enough to take back the gear we couldn't use and replace it with gear that we needed," adds the LD.

This is only one example of the typically sideways and backwards manner in which the Fox News Channel was gotten up and running. NYCL was brought into the project last April, long before the final form of the programming had taken hold, much less any sets designed. "We had to come up with lists so that they could get a budget together," Ferri recalls. "We were purchasing equipment before the production designer was hired." NYCL designed the grid system, brought in PDO for rigging and Production Arts to help engineer the power and distribution as well as to supply the equipment. Ferri also recommended a video engineer, Shane Greer, whom he claims is most responsible for the success of the picture. Finally, production designer Michael Hotopp joined the team and "came up with a look that was supposed to be different from what all of the other channels were offering for news--softer lines and a softer feel; white Plexiglas and light boxes. So it's up to us to add the color."

The third major Fox News Channel studio is a windowless space in the basement from which much of the network's primetime programming airs. Studio C, says Ferri, "has elements of both A and B, so you're not supposed to be able to tell what's been done here and what's been done there." As in Studio B, several seating configurations are possible, but the space is smaller, and the grid is very heavily hung. Equipment includes 46 300W fresnels, 32 650W fresnels, 46 Source Fours, 29 PAR 46s, 28 CFL 236s, and 23 MR-16s.

The LD outlines the basic lighting scheme in combining these sources: "Generally, I fill in using the CFLs as a base, and then use one key at an appropriate angle to give a highlight and a shadow to punch the person out. For the most part, we're punching in with 650s to key and 300s to back. We found we can even sometimes use the fluorescents as backlight." Ferri adds that gone are the days when any shadow was seen as a bad thing. "It used to be crosskeys, a lot of level, left, center, and right keys all coming in to take care of the three cameras, and left, center, and right backs to try to light the shadows out. Now, it's this soft kind of enveloping look, with one shadow." Several things have contributed to this transformation, he says, including the reality of lower light levels in video and the intangibility of producer perception. "It's a naturalistic approach--there's the sun, and it throws a shadow. It's all about placing the shadow in the right place, and making it look nice."

The reason Studio C is so loaded with instruments has to do partly with the requirements of different programs. "Because the configurations vary with every show that comes in, it's like a super rep plot," the LD says. "Camera angles change and positions for people change, so it was difficult to have one light do multiple uses." But it also speaks to a trend in 24-hour programming: turnkey operation. "There are no dedicated lighting people," says Ferri. "The marching orders were to design for every instance, every possibility. The consultants come in, design it, set it, it's locked, and they teach the technicians how to run it. If there was a lighting person here, they could pan or adjust the light for each show; I could have made all these lights do quadruple duty."

Power is controlled in Studios A, B, and C through an ETC Express console, with cues captured on an ETC Snapshot backup control unit, "to keep people from being able to vary the look." In Studios B and C, production "bibles" are on hand for technicians to follow. "We color-coded the platforms with various marks, like a clock in various positions," says Hazirjian. "Those platforms rotate to a couple of different positions, and then on top of those platforms are all the different chair positions. So you have combinations of combinations, which is great for everybody except for lighting. The cameras are on wheels and move around, the scenery is on wheels and moves around; we're stuck in a grid."

The Fox News Channel's automated capability is taken to its natural extent in the fourth studio, a tiny room in the basement affectionately dubbed the Goldfish Bowl, since glass walls separate it from the newsroom on three sides. Here, inserts and nighttime newsbreaks are shot, at a single anchor position. "We've got everything marked, and it's controlled through a Snapshot," says Ferri. "You just turn on the lights, the background and lights come up. It's all compact fluorescents, no key, just soft light and soft backs, and then we have some PARs and ellipsoidals as templates and color. The lights are color-corrected for 3200K, and complement anyone who sits there. They rotate people, so we never know who's going to be sitting in the seat." In the background, the working newsroom is accented with ellipsoidals and PARs, and also MR-16s. Since there is no space for a dimmer room next to the Goldfish Bowl, an Intelligent Power System takes care of dimming; elsewhere, there are ETC Sensor dimmers.

NYCL had personnel on-site at Fox News Channel until the presidential inauguration in January, and if there is a major lighting problem or power failure, the NYCL designers are on call. Otherwise, Ferri says, "it's the stage manager's responsibility to bring up the correct cue." Camera and audio technicians, as well as various "interns and associates," can also pitch in. "Does it work? I don't know," concludes Ferri. "I do know that in every turnkey production that I've designed"--others include CNBC and America's Talking--"they've invariably had to hire a lighting person. They all start out saying, 'We don't need lighting people,' and then the lights break. It's not a static thing; it's not like building a set that will always stand there. Lights turn on and off, on and off, on and off, and there's always something going wrong that needs repair."

Fox News Channel

Lighting Equipment: (68) Arri 300W fresnels (80) Arri 650W fresnels (52) Arri 1k fresnels (37) Arri Baby 2ks (2) Arri Studio 2ks (136) ETC Source Four ellipsoidals (53) ETC Source Four PARs (31) Altman PAR-64s (36) Altman PAR-46s (37) Strand Codas (13) Strand Inkies (27) MR-16s (10) Altman 2' Ministrips (5) Altman 6' Ministrips (6) Strand 2-cell cyclights (4) Kino Flos (3) Altman 4' Ministrips (50) LightTech CFL 236s (9) LightTech CFL 436s (3) LightTech CFL 155s (29) LightTech CFL dimmable 255s (47) LightTech CFL non-dimmable 255s (4) LightTech CFL non-dimmable 455s (55) LightTech ballasts (42) LightTech 255 Snoots (15) LightTech 236 Snoots (9) LightTech 436 Snoots (2) LightTech 455 Snoots