For news coverage, virtual sets can give a unique perspective. They can also distract from the very story they’re supposed to enhance.
For a while, virtual sets seemed to be a big trend in news coverage. Some studios still rely on them to place reporters or anchors “in the middle” of a scenario. Aside from virtual technology, there’s also “augmented reality,” which allows presenters to interact with story elements like bar graphs or words.
The latter seems to carry less of a risk of confusion for viewers because it looks like it’s some sort of computer-generated “alternate reality.”
Virtual sets, though, seem to cross that line.
During a recent edition of CBS Mornings, as part of the midwest faced a major winter storm, anchors pitched to a weather anchor. She appeared to be standing in the middle of a downtown street somewhere. Though she was surrounded by snow everywhere, yet she wasn’t bundled up. She dressed for the warmth of a television studio, not the biting cold of such a winter scene.
That’s because she was standing in the warmth of a studio.
The winter scene behind her was being shot by a different camera somewhere else and electronically superimposed (or “keyed”) behind her.
In one respect, this isn’t new.
Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all seen chroma-key technology for decades now. That’s the TV magic meteorologists use when they stand in front of the weather maps.
If you stood in the studio and watched them, you would see that they’re actually standing in front of a bright green or bright blue wall. Set designers choose blue or green because they’re furthest from flesh tones. More choose that bright green because fewer anchors wear green than blue. Whenever the control room technology sees that green color (or other shades of green close enough to it) it substitutes that hue for the weather map.
But when a meteorologist stands in front of a weather map that animates behind them and other maps and graphics electronically transition, most views should clearly understand that there’s some electronic magic happening.
Some viewers probably won’t even think about it. That’s fine. But the technology probably doesn’t fool those who do take the time to think about it.
Better technology is new…and better technology is the problem.
If the anchor on the CBS report dressed for cold weather, the image might be enough to trick the average viewer. To CBS’s credit, their anchors did refer to the technology that electronically “placed” the anchor at the scene.
To not do, it seems to me, would be unethical. At the very least, you could call it deceitful.
Why not just send the full crew to the scene whether the weather happened? The answer to that should be obvious: the expense. It’s cheaper to send one videographer — or use a live feed from a local station’s camera that’s already there. Sending a crew out to the scene would cost more.
So the virtual sets become not only a cool way to tell the story, but also a cost-saving measure.
Therein lies the problem. Without taking the time to explain that this is a trick of the technology, that technology looks too convincing. The temptation, then, almost has to exist to conveniently not mention the trickery.
As soon as that happens, it appears as if there’s a genuine intent to deceive or distort the truth. News viewers deserve true reality, not virtual reality.
With the right set-up and explanation, virtual sets can do what they should do: enhance the storytelling.
But without that critical explanation, they unintentionally turn an informative report into something that more resembles “fake news.”
That’s not something the news industry needs at all.