The six most outlandish tech gimmicks used by TV news

October 8, 2013
We have helpfully circled one of the giant tablets just in case you missed them. (Fox News)
We have helpfully circled one of the giant tablets just in case you missed them. (Fox News)

We, like the rest of the Internet, had a very good time cracking jokes about the giant tablets on display in Fox News' pseudo-futuristic vision of a newsroom. But as absurd as it may seem, there's a reason television news resorts to gimmicks, high tech or otherwise, to get viewers' attention.

For the most part, all television news outlets are competing with others that have the same set of facts, so standing out from their competition can be hard. There are some situations where this isn't the case -- like international breaking news where one organization might have the best on the ground video -- but on stories of the day or, say, election night coverage, most outlets will have the same factual information to disperse. So how can they convince viewers they are the network to watch?

Some have dealt with this by relying heavily on commentary, or introducing an ideological angle to their news coverage that attracts a certain political demographic. Arguably, CNN has done to most among the cable news channels to avoid that tactic. So unsurprisingly, CNN seems to be responsible for more than its fair share of the zany high tech gimmicks aimed at entertaining viewers. Here are a few of the most outlandish tech attempts television news has made to attract audiences.

1. Fox has giant tablets

Obviously, these weren't going to escape a mention. The tablets look absurd -- like iPads made for giants. And they don't seem to serve any legitimate news-gathering purpose.

2. CNN used LEDs to "exclusively display" electoral results atop the Empire State Building


CNN preview image if their Empire State light up extravaganza (CNN)

In 2012 CNN used a "state-of-the-art dynamic lighting system" featuring LED panels to light up the tower of the Empire State Building with real-time updates on the electoral college results. Admittedly, it's not the first time the building was used to help spread the word about a presidential election -- a "simple searchlight" was used to announce FDR's victory in 1932. But it's honestly hard to imagine that there were New Yorkers so desperate for news about the election they decided to gaze at their skyline in search of answers.

3. CNN's "virtual senate"

Yet another CNN trick from the 2012 election: Using the magic of computer generated imaging, the channel transported commentators to an uncanny valley replica of the U.S. Senate. Because everyone knows that you can't effectively report on Senate elections without walking the aisles of a virtual Senate chamber.

4. ABC's 2012 election LED video floor

The centerpiece of ABC's 2012 election night studio was a huge, circular, high definition LED screen embedded into the floor. During the broadcast, it was used to show graphics, including polling data and maps that could be seen when the cameras panned out, in what ABC was eager to call a "pretty stunning visual." However, the floor screen also failed at a key part of being a floor: You could not stand on it.

5. CNN hologram correspondents 

The "holograms" CNN used in 2008 to beam guests to Wolf Blitzer were a huge disappointment to Star Wars fans -- and they weren't even real holograms, since they were 3-D images edited into footage rather than projected into space. But the real problem with the hologram gimmick is that it didn't add any value to the reporting. In fact, as Don Reisinger at CNET commented at the time, the holograms actually made the reporting less useful because one of the reasons to do a remote broadcast is to give viewers a feel for what is happening on the ground and you lose that by editing out everything but the correspondent.

6. Unnecessary remote satellite interviews

Sometimes remote interviews give viewers added value. But that's not always the case. Remember that time CNN had two people speak with each other via satellite from the same parking lot? Seriously, you could watch the same traffic go by in the background. While the Atlantic Wire lays out some possible reasons for the confusing set up, it seemed a little gratuitous.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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