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Set Style

June 24, 1987

Stations aim to please with the right mix of desks and backdrops

By Tom Sowa
The Spokesman-Review

Area TV viewers in late April began noticing something different about the 5 and 11 p.m. newscasts on KHQ.

A major visual overhaul had transformed what was considered Spokane’s dullest newsroom studio into a designer-planned environment. What used to be a bland blue background is now an array of off-brown back walls bathed in soft lights, accented by pastel-blue vertical blinds.

The desk, a mix of wood and high-gloss laminate, gleams like a custom-built Ferrari.

“Channel 6 had the worst set in town before. Now it’s a matter of choice between them and us,” says Phil Wenstrand, the news director of KHQ’s chief rival, KREM-TV.

For KHQ, which installed its previous set in 1983, the desire to change came immediately after KREM introduced its latest set. “My problems with our old set occurred right after KREM got their new set (in 1984),” says Dean Mell, KHQ news director.

For the average Spokane viewer, the three major TV stations’ sets resemble each other more than they differ. Each is nothing more than the background walls, canopies, desks, chairs and props – like fake plants – that surround a station’s anchors during a newscast.

But ratings competition between Spokane’s three affiliates has changed the way sets are regarded, says Mell.

They’re not just a place to read the news, sports and weather anymore. Sets have become more sophisticated and elaborate in the wake of intense local competition, says Mell.

And even minor changes are noticed by viewers.

Elaine Murphy, KXLY’s news co-anchor, found herself being told by viewers that she looked better and healthier recently. Murphy hadn’t changed her makeup or started a conditioning program. The difference was in the set.

KXLY had changed the wall colors from a yellowy beige to a beige with more rose tones, says Dawn Bayman, KXLY’s executive news producer. “Taupe” is how Murphy describes the color.

“We don’t want people to notice the set,” says Bayman. Station management decided to change the wall colors after its anchors repeatedly complained that their faces were looking washed out.

KXLY also fine-tuned its news desk recently by reducing the thickness of the desk top and lightening its color a couple of shades.

Stephen Herling, KXLY’s vice president and general manager, worries that too much fine-tuning of a set disrupts viewers. “You can get overwhelmed by these aspects and dissecting everything down to the width of the table top.

“A set has to be functional from a technical standpoint. If you start messing around and adapting the little details, viewers get annoyed. What viewers want is consistency.”

The $37,000 spent by KHQ Inc. on the set’s complete makeover went beyond cosmetic improvements. Other considerations – particularly the use of more advanced technology in reporting the news – played a pivotal part.

“Our old set just didn’t give us the freedom and variety of camera angles we have now,” says Greg Jackson, producer of KHQ’s evening and late-night newscasts.

KHQ’s redesigned set has gotten criticism as well as compliments from viewers.

David Zack, a senior vice president at the advertising firm Clark, White and Associates, immediately noticed the jutting angle on the front edge of KHQ’s news desk. It made him think of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, the spaceship from the show “Star Trek.”

Zack, a regular TV-news watcher, says the most interesting news set in Spokane belongs to KXLY. “I like the background newsroom feeling of their set.”

Spokane attorney Suzanne Manning, a faithful 5 p.m. news viewer, found herself staring at the KHQ desk, not listening to the station’s reporters.

Not by accident, KHQ’s set debuted just before the monthlong May ratings, a time when Spokane’s TV stations work hard to win over new viewers.

Whatever the set’s impact, the latest Spokane TV ratings showed KHQ slightly increasing its 5-6 p.m. lead over KREM and KXLY, according to Arbitron and Nielsen surveys just published.

The competition looks even keener at 11 p.m. At that time, the three stations’ ratings are bunched much closer together. One ratings service has KREM with a slight lead at 11. The other ratings service gives the nod to KHQ.

And KXLY, for several years mired in a distant third position, recently gained audiences for both its early and late newscasts.

George Andrus, the man who helped engineer the set overhaul for KHQ, won’t take credit for KHQ’s ratings. Andrus, a consultant for the San Diego-based firm Graphic Express, says his job is to make each station’s talent look comfortable and assured.

“Our job is to make the talent look as good as they can. Their job is to communicate.

“Most TV viewers don’t watch a station just to look at the set. They either trust the anchor or they don’t,” says Andrus.

He predicts KHQ will keep the new set intact for a minimum of five years, if not longer.

The set makeover at KREM was also designed by Andrus and his associates at Graphic Express. KREM’s 1984 change happened about the same time KXLY went to its current set design, a switch that took place without an outside consultant.

“Ultimately,” says Mell at KHQ, “you know you’re close to getting a new set) when you hear the general manager say, ‘Gosh, I’m sick of looking at this set.’”

To build the set, Andrus and a team of researchers undertook interviews with KHQ staff to determine the station’s needs. They also thoroughly reviewed the city’s history and architecture. “We don’t want to build something that looks like it fits New York or Pittsburgh,” says Andrus.

“What we aimed for (at KHQ) was a warm, contemporary look. We don’t want anything that seems too avant-garde, which might offend the audience they’ve worked hard to build.

“It needs to have a modern feeling, to attract the audience they don’t have and are working to get. Finally the (news) talent must look comfortable walking or sitting on the set they’re using.”

Andrus says many stations across the country are returning to simpler designs, with an emphasis on comfortable sets.

Distractions – like bookshelves, tall plants or background fixtures – are out. “That kind of mumbo jumbo gets in the way of communicating, which is what the anchor is there to do,” says Andrus.

Designers have learned not to develop designs with short lifespans. “Any set built mostly out of wood in the last two years is already out of date.”

Colors themselves go through swings of fashion. “Earth tones are out, they’re bland generally.” The color choice ultimately depends on getting a blend of light and shadows to give a feeling of depth.

Wenstrand at KREM admits TV news directors get in the “fix-the-set” syndrome whenever ratings start to slide. But KREM’s approach to a slight ratings decline has been to introduce newscasts at 6:30 a.m. and noon, not to tinker with the set.

Wenstrand says, “Too often, set changes are made at stations just for change’s sake.”

The station he worked at in Boise before joining KREM last winter had the highest ratings, he notes. “And we had the worst set.”

Mell doesn’t figure the new set had much impact on May’s TV ratings. “I haven’t seen any studies relating ratings to how sets look…But I think a set does have a subtle impact on viewers.”

Adds Wenstrand, “If a newscast lives or dies on the basis of a set, we’re all in trouble.”

Both agree on a general rule in regard to viewer perception. “It’s something like: A good set doesn’t help nearly as much as a bad set can hurt a TV station,” says Mell.

Wednesday, June 24, 1987

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From → KHQ, KREM, KXLY

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