Behind CBS News' Virtual Reality and Other Groundbreaking Night Tech Elections

CBS News

"The network will debut an AR-style Senate floor in its new Times Square studio."

CBS News will air its multi-platform election night coverage from the newly constructed Viacom CBS headquarters in Times Square, New York, featuring innovative augmented-reality-style graphics and visual displays showing the latest polling results and mapping. Anchoring in the studio will be Norah O'Donnell, Gayle King, Margaret Brennan, John Dickerson, and Ed O'Keefe.

Significant live events from the Olympic Games to the election nights have long been an opportunity for broadcasters to experiment. Still, the extraordinary election that has taken place under the strains of a global pandemic has only added layers to this already expansive undertaking.

"We empower our top political journalists with the latest data visualization and storytelling resources to bring as much clarity as we can to this election," concludes Susan Zirinsky, president of CBS News and senior executive producer. "As we brace for one of the most difficult election nights in the history of the President, we will carry the power of our news staff and the most in-depth details and polling of all 50 states."

"We empower our top political journalists with the latest data visualization and storytelling resources to bring as much clarity as we can to this election," concludes Susan Zirinsky, president of CBS News and senior executive producer. "As we brace for one of the most difficult election nights in the history of the President, we will carry the power of our news staff and the most in-depth details and polling of all 50 states." The studio was installed in less than a month with state-of-the-art graphics and technology, including a multi-touch screen and wide 1.5 mm high-resolution Planar LED video walls.

"What we needed was a kind of leap forward in technology to massively render a lot of pixels on electronic canvases," Bohrman says, adding that the network relies on Vizrt 's live production technology and the Christie Spyder processor to monitor up to 80 million pixels. "You can target any highly rendered video or something at any specific part of that 80 million pixels. So we can make not just the 1080 [HD] image ... and it will map to the pixels and look fantastic in far-reaching resolutions [on the video walls]."

With real-time monitoring technology, CBS will also introduce a range of new augmented-reality-style features, including a presidential race map and an intelligent AR-style Senate floor to watch the Senate races.

Bohrman continues, "It's just an exciting look at the Senate, and we're using that specific viewpoint to talk about the elections that are up, who sit in these seats ... and they're going to be easy to watch as we go through the night."

This year, broadcasters have additional difficulty providing COVID-safe news, including regular on-site monitoring, masking, and social distancing with COVID-19 enforcement officers.

"We had to run our scenic idea by the COVID officers," Bohrman says. "ViacomCBS has a COVID task force that is very, very strict on space. There is a limit to the occupancy of any of the rooms. The studio contest area is practically zoned off because all of the support staff dealing with the anchors, the correspondents, can't get to the studio.

"I can only get four or five producers in the control room [which is at CBS on 57th Street, not Times Square]. I recall having 30 people in the control room," he continues, adding that the newsroom "is being used for some of our graphics replay operations as well as some other news operations, and people who would be in the control room are in another place.

Beyond New York, CBS will use its Washington, D.C. studio to hear from correspondents worldwide, all using the same safety guidelines. "There are some places we can not go because there are so many people, but the entire company is COVID-conscious and COVID-compliant," Bohrman says.

Asked about coverage of the candidates' sites, he responds, "We have more clarity on the Biden event. And the Biden event looks like it's going to be outdoors. My guess is it will feel a lot like the last night of their convention. As of right now, we are uncertain as to what the Trump event is going to be."

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Behind CBS News' Virtual Reality and Other Groundbreaking Night Tech Elections