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When do these people go to the bathroom? The question dogs me after an afternoon in the crowded but quiet control room of Fox News’ Shepard Smith Reporting. Producers for the network’s most apolitical anchor spent the duration of my two-hour visit parked in their monitor coliseum, deciding with the drag and drop of a mouse which of an infinite number of visual and textual combinations would underscore the telecast on the so-called “lower third” — the addictive banner beneath Smith (on this day, April 4, Bill Hemmer’s pinch-hitting) that can change more than 100 times in an hour.
“Some days it’s more important to me than what people are saying,” says Kim Rosenberg, the network’s vice president of news and Smith’s longtime senior executive producer. She estimates that roughly half of her day is devoted to Smith’s silent, computer-generated lower third as it flashes brutally efficient text that summarizes or excerpts the discussion onscreen (most Fox News shows also have a second red ticker of breaking news, though Rosenberg thinks her screen is full enough already). “When we started doing this 20 years ago, people used to make fun of us because the screen was too busy,” says Rosenberg. “[Viewers] weren’t ADD like they are now.”
Fox News was the first to load up the lower third like an Italian sub. It has long since become the norm on most newscasts as viewers’ attention spans and the watch-on-mute culture of the 24-hour news cycle demand it. Other technologies come fast and furious — remember CNN’s 2008 election night hologram? — but none has made a more lasting or lingering impression. “Beyond gimmick, these things need the right context,” says Fox News vp graphics engineering Peter Blangiforti. “For technology centered around live production, we want it to be repeatable, agile and something we can constantly evolve.”
All three requirements seem to be in practice during this episode of Shepard Smith Reporting. Rosenberg, doing the work of air traffic controller with the finesse of a Carnegie Hall conductor, writes up most of the text. Using proprietary software that could easily be mistaken for an Excel spreadsheet, she fires off quotes and context — often at a maximum 60 characters that make a tweet seem rambling — to a copy editor 10 feet behind her. After a final look, she punts the product to technician Rashima Massenburg-Santiago, who places it onscreen. This pinball-esque exchange can happen in seconds — and does, at the halfway mark of the telecast, when President Donald Trump releases a statement about a gas attack in Syria. The time in between is spent on other aesthetics, such as red banners for breaking news and cooler blue hues for less urgent stories, and, of course, queuing up interviews and shifting the telecast as news demands.
Each producer seems just as occupied with their tweetdeck as with the show, and some — like fellow executive producer Jonathan Glenn — have to do their jobs on-air from Smith’s equally busy “News Deck.” The screen-filled studio is lined with staffers scrolling for breaking stories on social media throughout each telecast.
Rosenberg only drops the lower third for special circumstances. Today it happens when cutting to a clip of Andrea Mitchell interviewing former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice on MSNBC — but showing the interview also means showing their competitor’s lower third. It’s not ideal, but it’s fair. And, as Rosenberg puts it, far less messy looking.
Near the end of the episode, an interview subject goes off-script — torpedoing Rosenberg’s five prewritten captions. But that doesn’t irk her nearly as much as the glee with which some of her 1.8 million daily viewers will screengrab a lower third faux pas, typo or even a stylebook-approved abbreviation and share it on social media. “We occasionally have to sacrifice a verb,” she laments. “I wonder if English teachers sit at home cringing at what they see onscreen.”
A version of this story first appeared in the April 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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