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Archived Weekly Features
This View by Nancy LeMay
Nancy LeMay is a five-time Emmy winning broadcast designer who has worked both in New York and LA, in network and local. She is a teacher and a painter as well. You can reach her through her website, and by email at
Election Night Graphics; Stars, Bars, & Sensory Overload

Vast acres of broadcast design were on display on November 5th as the midterm elections were caught in TV’s blistering, one-eyed gaze. Hour upon hour the news channels churned out updates, analysis and speculation; the broadcast networks cut in occasionally for what seemed to be only regularly scheduled ‘newsbites’.

Watching the coverage was, among other things, a fascinating study in the many problems of branding in the multichannel, fully-zapable TV universe. For one thing, many of the news channels featured some not-immediately-identifiable faces. Mort Kondracke has, for instance, not as recognizable a mug as, say, Peter Jennings. So Fox made sure that we saw their "You Decide 2002" in every shot; their election slogan keyed to the "We Report, You Decide" tagline which has been a staple of their promotions for quite for a while. While this was effective promotion and branding, it was not great design-the circular, glowing blue type treatment was repeated 5 times in the set design, making it tediously repetitive. Their most creative offering, however, was the deliciously named "Orb of Statistical Enlightenment," a bar chart, basically, that showed...well, I'm not sure what it showed; they were on to something else before I was finished laughing.

There was more fun to be had with the various networks’ full-screens. Here this years trends in TV design came together in all their questionable glory. Spinning, zipping, flying, swooshing and whooshing sound, color and words were the edge-to-edge, wall-to-wall order of the night for many of the nets. Fox and CNN offered up animating, hypnotically pulsating mixes of stars, bars, flashing lights and illuminated circles tracing through space; I wanted to reach for the Dramamine a few times. CNBC kept the animation going, but with a much more restrained palette and more leisurely pace that was much easier on the eyes. They stayed with the gold, bronze and black color theme that they've used to good effect before, and kept their basic, beefy Helvetica fonts readable and well-scaled.

But for completely pure, we’re-going-against-the-tide restraint, nobody I saw beat CBS News. Using the Evening News’ set design, a softly undulating, pale American flag played gently behind Dan Rather on three screens that are seen, in full, behind him. In contrast with the in-your-face blasts of pattern, color and activity in the other election sets, a dark blue/gray predominated, and their full-screens carried the set’s palette. In these full-screens, the Evening News’ existing tubular graphics theme was seen behind candidate’s head shots, and a gray tube on screen left carried the graphics title information, which animated on, gently rotating into place from ‘behind’ the tube. CBS’s branding, therefore, was in ‘traditional values’- substance over style, Information Is King. I found the only jarring note was Dan Rather himself; the flat, minimal and unflattering lighting made it look as if he’d been dragged from a deep sleep barely minutes before air. Restraint had been carried a bit too far in his case.

The networks’ problem-finding and holding the interest of an audience-rests very much in the hands of broadcast designers, whose work, sadly, is cheapened by the very problem they're trying to help solve. The visual shout is forced to match the verbal shout that has been created by fierce competition for ratings. Will Fox invent something to top its ‘Orb of Statistical Enlightenment’? Will CBS be forced to give up the graphic high ground and just end up looking like everyone else as a result? We’ll know soon enough; the primaries are just around the corner…