ABC News Bets Studio Overhaul Will Nab Viewers for ‘Super Tuesday’ and Beyond

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ABC/Lorenzo Bevilaqua

ABC News spends heavily on top anchors like George Stephanopoulos and David Muir. Now it’s investing in the studio that houses so many of them.

Just in time for three hours of “Super Tuesday” coverage, the Disney-owned news outlet is unveiling a massive 5,500 foot production space in the heart of its New York City headquarters that will give news programs like “World News Tonight,” “Nightline” and “This Week” all sorts of modern-day capabilities that could prove important in weeks to come. The overhaul, which features two massive video walls that can be moved, the potential to use augmented-reality images as well as a high-resolution video floor, marks the biggest re-do of the studio known as TV3 since it was built for Peter Jennings’ evening news broadcast in 1986.

In a different era, the news studio mattered more to the camera personnel and control-room producers than it did to viewers. Anchors held forth with a still graphic placed over their shoulders. But viewers who check out Vice Media’s “you-are-there” reportage or any number of streaming-video documentaries have come to expect a different kind of on-screen environment, one in which the anchor can talk to a correspondent in a far-flung part of the world without going off camera, and one where moving images, not frozen graphics, are de rigueur.

“We can see our talent and the story at the same time,” says Seth Easter, senior production designer at ABC News. “It’s more of an immersive environment now.”

ABC News isn’t the only outlet putting more money into studio upgrades. Fox News Channel has invested in new production facilities in recent years. NBC News announced last year it would transition its Washington D.C. staff to a different production center across from the U.S. Capitol. And CBS News created a new production space to house a “CBS Evening News,” now based in Washington, D.C.

Much of the build-out is spurred by the availability of new ways to use studios. “Only a few years ago, physical set-pieces and backdrops were an important part of every studio. But as LED technology has improved and become cheaper, most news operations are creating studios in which the desk and chairs are the only physical element and the backdrop to every shot is electronic,” says Mark Lukasiewicz, a former senior vice president of specials at NBC News who is dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. “With LED walls, changing the look and feel of a studio or show is no longer a matter of building and installing something,” he adds.

But the quest for studio upgrades also takes place as TV-news outlets are handling significantly more special reports and broadcasts, whether they come in the form of daytime cut-ins to congressional hearings, show with live studio audiences or town halls and debates. Coverage of events such as those or “Super Tuesday” are “the nights that we live for, the nights when a news division defines itself,” says Marc Burstein, ABC News’ senior executive producer of special events. During coverage of primaries, he says, “we are all dealing with the same data, but it’s all about what you do with that data, how you break it down, how you present it” that differentiates one TV-news effort from another.

ABC’s studio upgrade is more notable because Disney will be moving its entire New York staff to a different building within the next four or five years. The company, which declined to comment on the amount of money it has invested in its new studio, must see some potential upside to building out a new facility even thought it will only get a few years of use.

“They really believe in what we are doing here,” says  Zach Toback, ABC News’ vice president of news and non-fiction production and studio operations. “There is a correlation between what you see and the stories that are being told.” The company intends to take its new screens and equipment to its new facility, he says, so its investment will continue to pay off in later years.

ABC News executives have been interested in upgrading studio space ever since a midterm election broadcast in 2018, which featured a two-tiered set designed by Easter. The second level could be used by digital-news operations while Stephanopoulos, Jonathan Karl and other ABC News anchors and contributors broadcast on the floor.

There was no way ABC News could keep the set. The production area that housed it was going to be used to house the new syndicated “Tamron Hall Show.”  But ABC News President James Goldston pressed his executives to try out other ideas.

After gaining various approvals, work began in earnest this past fall. Most of the programs were able to continue to broadcast from TV3, thanks to staffers setting up multiple production areas. But the work was constantly interrupted by the news cycle, particularly ABC News’ need to cover impeachment hearings. At one point, says Toback, at least one show broadcast with cameras set up so that viewers could not see any shot of a desk, the better to hide construction that was underway.

When ABC News executives asked the construction team what else they needed to get their work done, Toback and his crew asked only for one thing: more time.  But there was none to be had. In recent weeks, he says, “we probably have had a crew of 25-plus people working 20-plus hours a day.”

Workers had to take down some equipment that dates back to Jennings’ tenure on the evening news, and even try to figure out if some cables strung through the ceiling actually had connections. In the end, however, the studio is now available to the many ABC News shows that called it home as well as for special broadcasts.

And that presents something of a relief to the staffers who were getting it ready. We were changing the tires on the car as it was going down the highway,” says Toback.