Behind CBS News' Augmented Reality and Other Advanced Election Night Tech

CBS News 2020 Election Headquarters -Election Night Set
Courtesy of CBS News

CBS News will broadcast its multiplatform election night coverage from a newly built set in the Viacom CBS headquarters in New York's Times Square, featuring advanced augmented-reality-style graphics and visual displays showing the latest data, polling and mapping. Anchoring from the studio will be Norah O’Donnell, Gayle King, Margaret Brennan, John Dickerson and Ed O’Keefe.

Big live events from Olympic Games to election nights have long been opportunities for broadcasters to innovate, but an unprecedented election held under the restrictions posed by a global pandemic have only added layers to this already expansive undertaking.

“We’re empowering our top political journalists with the latest data visualization and storytelling tools to bring as much clarity as we can to this election,” sums up Susan Zirinsky, CBS News president and senior executive producer. “As we prepare for one of the most complicated election nights in presidential history, we will bring the strength of our reporting team and the most in-depth voter information and polling from all 50 states."

The Times Square headquarters had a studio that wasn't built out, which gave the news team an opportunity to design a new election set. "We want to be able to tell the story of the election in a clear way but with the dynamics that an election needs to have, because television can really rise to the occasion in an election and help tell the story," relates David Bohrman, executive producer of CBS News’ 2020 election night coverage. The studio was built in less than a month with state-of-the-art graphics and technology including a multitouch screen and large high-resolution 1.5mm Planar LED video walls.

"What we needed was sort of a leap forward in technology for massive rendering of a lot of pixels on electronic canvases," Bohrman explains, saying the network is relying on live production technology from Vizrt and a Christie Spyder processor to control up to 80 million pixels. "You can target any highly rendered video or anything at any particular part of that 80 million pixels. So we can render not to just the 1080 [HD] picture … and it will map to the pixels and it'll look great in very big resolutions [on the video walls]."

With real-time tracking technology, CBS will also debut a couple of new augmented-reality-style elements, including a presidential race map and a clever AR-style Senate floor to follow the Senate races.

"Our Senate [3D] model actually uses the seats in the location where they are on the floor," Bohrman explains, noting that these seats can be made red or blue. "You visualize seats that are up, and you see them in the context of which side of the Senate they are actually on. People aren't really allowed in the Senate. It's very rare for a regular person, even a reporter, to get in the Senate."

Bohrman adds: "It's just a really fascinating look at the Senate, and we're using that unique perspective to talk about the races that are up, who sits in these seats … and they'll be very easy to track as we go through the night."

This year, broadcasters have the added complication of having to deliver the news in a COVID-safe way including daily testing, masks and social distancing with COVID-19 compliance officers on-site.

“We had to run our scenic design by the COVID officers,” Bohrman elaborates. “ViacomCBS has a COVID task force that's very, very strict on space. There is a limit for the occupancy of any of the rooms. The studio concourse area is actually zoned off, so many of the support staff that work 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 in Times Square]. I remember having 30 people in the control room," he continues, adding that the newsroom is "being used for some of our graphics playback operations as well as some other news operations, and people who would be in the control room are in another room. We've taken the biggest team event and dispersed it for COVID reasons.”

Beyond New York, CBS will use its Washington, D.C., studio and hear from correspondents around the country, all using the same safety guidelines. "There's some places we may not go because there are too many people, but the whole organization is COVID-aware and COVID-compliant," says Bohrman.

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."