World panorama and digitalized top
by Thomas Wagner | Apr 28, 2014
Since April 19, the news of the ARD broadcast from a new studio. Photo © NDR / Thorsten Jander

Everything has once again been made over at the “Tagesschau” news desk. While the usual fanfares are played ushering in the evening news, they do sound a bit like the “Star Trek” soundtrack. The ARD TV channel has invested 23.4 million euros in its studio, which is 320 square meters in size, and various changes catch the eye: Instead of one there are now two reader tops shaped like crosses, the room is dominated by a panorama multimedia wall, the news anchors have to move around more, and there’re wooden floor boards. According to the organizers, the large multimedia wall is intended to ensure news is better conveyed thanks to their improved visual display, as difficult content can be better visualized now in the form of animated graphics, while recordings by photojournalists can be presented in a larger format and all topics can be presented in a “more expressive, authentic form using emotional images”, which ostensibly makes the content easier to grasp. The goal, the ARD says, is to “offer viewers serious news journalism in an appealing and modern guise”.

Literally being in the midst of things

The fact is that from now on the news reader or anchor will really be “in the midst of things”. The idea being to suggest that not just the person we are viewing against the backdrop of all the images, but we viewers too are absolutely at the center of things, whatever it is that is happening in the world. And because today it’s all the rage to disband barriers, he or she no longer stands behind the reader desk as if glued there, even if the top almost seems to float across our screens as the news is being announced. They do stand around looking a bit lost, all those news readers who suddenly have legs and a body like the anchors in so many other shows, bowing down to the magic of the image, which is purported to so convey authenticity.

Exploring the world from the deck

And the floor is a real surprise. Whether the planks framed by white illuminated strips are made of wood or some other material that looks like wood we do not know. Just as we don’t know whether the designers who chose this solution had a nice patio in mind, whence one could look down and peruse the world through the media, or the deck of a cruise-liner destined for another shore with each new(s) day. It at any rate does not seem to wobble, even if the readers are always heading for major destinations. In terms of symbolism, the choice is a bit curious, even if one accepts that the days when news were presented in a sober, matter-of-fact form are presumably over once and for all.

News from the big wide world

The method behind the news broadcasts seems very simple: Conjure up news from the big wide world in word and image on a comparatively small screen. To take the global reach of things into account, our planet, plagued daily by wars, disasters, protests, revolts and hopelessly over-taxed politicians looks blue, and not just when seen from outer space. As the color of distance and yearning, blue is also preferred for news broadcasts. It’s even part and parcel of the corporate design of Tagesschau, as the ARD’s new service, even if there has of late been a little more white. Rival programs of course don’t want to get left behind. Which is why the “heute” evening news on the ZDF channel is presented against the backdrop of a blue-toned world map, even if the blue here is a little more watery.

Focusing on the reader’s desk

Not just the symbolism of colors and graphics plays a role when reports are presented from all over the world, and viewers are dished up current news in readily digestible portions. The studio’s design remains at the center of this complex setting, where journalism, technology and aesthetics interact. And a lot has changed in this regard. Almost all the major channels, and not just in Germany, have in recent years redesigned their news studios. Although the TV programming bosses seek not only to provide information, but to render it comprehensible thanks to ultra-modern multimedia technology and an array of media, in most cases the studio is still dominated by a central piece of furniture, namely a more or less expansive news desk.

The studio as symbolic landscape

Today, the “furnishing” of the studio essentially creates a complex symbolic landscape. The news desk is key, be it massive or airy, soberly rectangular or circular, broad as a bridge or curved as a boomerang, bent like a banana or expansive like Hogarth’s “line of beauty and grace”, enhanced by illuminated strips or blessed with a reflective top – in news studios many desks look like remnants of exaggerated shop design.

Hardly surprising, given that many studios resemble stores where information is on offer like hot potatoes. Moreover, to make sure the select news does not sound like so many revelations, the anchor often ceases to remain stoically lodged behind the barrier, and instead moves around the studio, chatting and explaining all the while. The essentially blank walls serve to house various media windows on the world, or as projection screens, whereby the world consists of images and the belief that these convey something like ‘reality’. Often enough, we thus hear an anchor talk of “awful images” as if the matter at hand were not the news of an event but the effect that these images of it trigger. Today, more than ever, news studios are also illusion machines.

Ordering chaos

Unlike the front page of a newspaper like the New York Times, the cleft and multi-faceted face of which Marshall McLuhan suggested in 1951 resembled a cubist synchronic section of headlines, texts and empty spaces, the constant flow of reports, film clips and commentaries in TV is astonishingly conventional. Instead of plunging us into a morass of typographical headlines and texts, all vying for our attention, a narrator presents on screen one story after the next. The voice suggests that order is being brought to the chaos of the world.

Reason enough for the channels to develop a contemporary visual aesthetic that squares up to our constantly changing visual habits. After all, it is not just the frequency of information that has multiplied. Viewers need any amount of prior knowledge to understand things, and “virtual studios” purportedly offer advantages in this regard. As platforms on which several digital media are networked, they are intended to help explain complex issues. For a while touchscreens on which anchors could move ‘content’ back and forth and a large video screens that displayed it were all the rage. They have since gone a bit out of fashion. Real-time graphics and multimedia structures are meant to offer additional possibilities to support viewers who come into the category of “viewers who need to have things explained to them”. With the dubious side effect that you rarely feel as if the TV addresses you as an adult. It’s as if we are constantly being fobbed off with trivial explanations and were treated like in kindergarten or first grade.

News broadcasts as info filters

Ever since Twitter and innumerable apps for mobile handsets have upped the pace of permanent newsflow immensely, TV newsmakers are under pressure. That’s one reason why news broadcasts increasingly function as filters for the information ubiquitously on offer and are morphing into a platform that brings together all the media forms, conveying information in little portions that consumers can readily digest.

Perhaps media scientist Norbert Bolz is right to have assumed that the multimedia instruction of viewers serves primarily to allay their fears in a world that has become opaque. After all, since everyone now takes part in everything that happens round the globe in real time, there is no escaping the fact that we are over-strained in terms of cognitive and moral faculties. With the result that you are constantly in a state of alarm. Way back when Marshall McLuhan realized that electronic media force humans to metamorphose into a tribal society. Especially if humans are permanently over-strained, it is emotions that count more than facts. Which is why the TV news is focusing more than ever on the faces of heroes and rogues, tales of suffering and stories of success, meaning personal fate, concern, and a deal struck between sympathy and antipathy. The negotiation is held between the analog desks and the digital blue or green-screen. Or, as is now the rage at Tagesschau, on the upper bridge of a media cruiser, whence the world below unfolds as a panorama of everything considered to be new.

The spokesperson for the issues of the day is now standing in front of a 180 degree panoramic wall. Photo © NDR / Thorsten Jander
The ARD television news spokeswoman Caren Miosga in front of the 18-meter-wide media wall. Photo © NDR / Thorsten Jander
Left: A virtual screen visualizes the explanations of the newscaster of CNN. Screenshot CNN Newsroom April 9, 2014. Right: The Spanish news format Antena 3 introduced its new studio in 2011. Screenshot Antena 3 on 10 January 2011.