The Fox News Deck made its television debut on October 7, 2013, when host — and respected journalist — Shepard “Shep” Smith stood before a camera and declared his show to be the beginning of a “live broadcast revolution.”
Gone were the days when a network could call itself “cutting-edge” by delivering the news of the day to an audience behind a television screen for an hour each night. Smartphones and mobile apps made the production and consumption of news a 24/7 interactive onslaught — one that transcended traditional media platforms and schedules. This new era would necessitate a brand-new editorial approach.
Gesturing toward a fleet of busy editors with their backs to the camera, Smith explained that his staff would cover breaking stories in real time, with the editorial process integrated within the live broadcast itself. They would use new technology to format content for immediate distribution, giving Smith the ability to pull up any editor’s computer screen instantly on television. The efficiency gained would allow for more information to be processed, vetted, and broadcast faster than ever — all while viewers watched and participated as the sausage was made.
I should also add that the editors would work from massive, white, 55-inch touchscreen displays mounted to angular podiums arrayed radially throughout the studio in concentric arcs. Smith would occupy center stage, scrolling through content with a remote control as his staff toiled away in the background, their army of enormous screens clearly visible to viewers at home, if not also on the International Space Station.
The on-air look was so absurd it led Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” to remark that the set looked “like an Apple Genius Bar had an orgasm.”
At the time, I was 23 years old and the ink on my diploma was still drying. I had spent the last five years at The University of Texas at Austin traveling abroad and learning invaluable lessons about how to design sensitively, how to provide value to the built environment, and what a designer’s role in society could be.
I had never given television set design a second thought, much less considered it a potential career trajectory. And that was still very much the case as I sat at my desk in a renowned architecture firm during what I considered the infancy of my inevitable, brilliant, and storied career as an architect. I scoffed at the “Fox News Deck.” Its overblown, bombastic aesthetic was such a gimmick. Who designs like that? Who could enjoy designing like that? I finished my lunch, went back to my Revit model, and didn’t think about it again.
But the universe evidently has a sense of humor. Less than a year later, I found myself working for New York-based Clickspring Design, one of the globe’s leading broadcast designers and — you guessed it — the designers of the Fox News Deck.
After working at Clickspring for a little over four years, I’ve gotten used to the fact that most people don’t really understand what broadcast design is, let alone why an architect would be involved.
“TV set design? Like, you design televisions?”
I don’t blame them! Most of us grew up on a steady, media-rich diet, yet take for granted the recognizable environments that give all programming a functional, visual identity. Game shows, talk shows, news broadcasts — these are all designed spaces with specifically-branded programmatic needs, not unlike a retail store, corporate office, or hotel. A variety of disciplines work in close coordination to accomplish a singular design vision that is sold to a client.
It is architecture.
That being said, there are some critical differences to traditional architectural practice. The first is the head-spinning schedule.
Depending on the scale and complexity of the set, it’s common to design, solicit feedback, and secure concept approval within a month. This is typically done through a comprehensive rendering package and schematic plans that will show a client how the project will be shot and viewed on-air. Once approved, we produce a drafting package in four to six more weeks.
The set is fabricated off-site in roughly six to 10 weeks and loaded into the studio over a couple weeks’ time. Dress rehearsals and camera tests happen over another week, and then we’re done. In a matter of a few months, we will have gone from drawing sketches on trace paper to seeing our design on television. While schedules can vary between projects, watching the volume of work that churns through our office leaves me with a near-constant feeling of instant gratification.
Also noteworthy is the weirdness of designing within a black box. Most architects I know (the good ones, at least) embrace contextual design, where many early design moves are derived from a dialogue with the site, its landscape, its climate, and so on. When designing for television, we need to know the shape of the room, the height of the lighting grid, and where some critical technical elements are positioned along the studio perimeter, but that’s about it.
It’s almost startling to watch a design born from a vacuum, but for our design staff (only half of which is architecturally trained), there’s a playful and unapologetic embrace of formalism that happens in these early stages, a process that doesn’t have a direct parallel in contemporary architectural practice. In school, I would be grilled by my professors to justify every design move I made, but at work, if we want to make a non-load-bearing staircase that attaches to a bridge to nowhere, the only questions we’ll get from the client are usually “How do we shoot it?” and “What does it look like on camera?”
It’s perverse and totally liberating.
This design process actually works, but only because, at the end of the day, we’re designing environments that are not primarily for the people that use them — they’re for the people watching at home. We craft intentionally mediated experiences where the camera is king.
Shep Smith’s aesthetically absurd “news deck” was successful because anyone who tuned in for the first time knew the show was a radical departure from anything they had seen before. Also, it’s actually functional for the on-air editorial staff, although admittedly this particular marriage between form and function is more akin to a shotgun wedding. Could we not have put the editors behind giant iPads? Sure. But then who would be talking about it? Sometimes a design needs to be provocative.
The rapid development of broadcast trends means the landscape of what is possible is ever-shifting. Just as architectural ideas ebb and flow throughout the eras, so too do ideals of set design. These “revolutions,” as Shep Smith aptly called them, happen regularly and are almost always driven by technological advancement. For example, the rise of HD and 4K displays as consumer standards meant the build-out quality of these environments had to rise considerably. Producers could have gotten away with a piece of electrical tape covering a chipped wall in the 1980s, but in 2019, we’ll see that cut corner in all its glory.
One of today’s revolutions appears to be the steady march toward integrating augmented reality (AR) into live or pre-recorded broadcasts. These are graphics rendered in three dimensions that appear to exist in space as a part of the physical studio. They are often interactive, like when a host on The Weather Channel walks around a spinning F5 tornado as it forms, or when a sports anchor stands on a virtual football field and shows you the route a wide receiver would run from the quarterback’s perspective. Applications abound, and the acceptance of this immersive tool is leading us to design broadcast environments differently. Sets may get larger, often including dedicated spaces for these graphics to stretch into the whole frame. And increasingly our practice considers our proposed design solution as a hybrid between physical and digital elements.
As a young architect, I’m not just enamored with broadcast design because it’s different and fun, although it is both of those things. I’m enamored with it because we’re witnessing a convergence between today’s broadcast ideals and the ideals of contemporary architectural practice.
As firms across the world increasingly market their expertise in “branded environments,” they’re essentially leaning into a long-held golden rule of television set design: Context (what we experience) and content (the communication of value and relevance) are thought of as one.
Undoubtedly, we will begin to see a saturation of mediated experiences integrated within physical architecture. It’s already happening. Go to a department store in China and virtually “try on” an outfit by standing in front of a custom mirror employing an AR display that superimposes a rendering of clothing over your actual reflection. If you have a great experience by avoiding the line for the dressing room, I bet you’re more likely to go back to that store. And I bet that starts to change how we design for retail, in the long run.
The future of architecture is destined to explore these emerging methods of communication, exchange, and audience participation. And, while I desperately hope that future doesn’t look like a bunch of giant iPads scattered across a television studio, I’m excited to be a part of the next generation of architects who figure it out.
Christopher Ferguson, AIA, is an architect at Clickspring Design and co-founder of DO.GROUP.