Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Beam Me Up, Wolf
November 4th, 2008. On a night that sizzled with genuine dramatic imagery, from scenes of hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Chicago's Grant Park to feeds of election-watch parties around the world, CNN premiered one of the silliest and most gratuitous uses of artificial computer generated graphics ever to spring from the minds of geek-dom.
Wolf Blitzer is a remarkably talented journalist. He has a B.A. in history, received an M.A. in international relations from Johns Hopkins, worked for Reuters and the Jerusalem Post, has written two books, and looks good on TV. He's been with CNN since 1990 and won an Emmy Award for his coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing. These days, though, he hosts a pathetic show with the authoritative name "The Situation Room," which views like an "Entertainment Tonight" for pop-news/celebrity-scandal/breaking-tragedy junkies. For three hours every weeknight, Blitzer delivers the news with a bit too much energy and a lot too much volume as he stands before a huge video wall that's covered with graphics and bigger-than-life talking heads and live or taped "You Are There" scenes of the disasters and human interest stories that the network offers up for its viewers' titillation.
CNN is not content to deliver news unadorned, to let the story speak with its own inherent drama and energy. Everything is goosed up, scored with dramatic music, wrapped in slick 3D graphics, set in busy screens filled with scrolling text bars and titles with moving decorations. Talking heads and continuously looping B-Roll are framed in PhotoShop-ped virtual borders that are animated with dizzying movement -- as though the images themselves are inadequate to engage a viewer's brain.
Little wonder then that on election night Wolf roamed the stage at CNN's studio in the Time Warner Center in New York and used its outsized billboard video wall and slick graphics to dramatize what was, already, a pretty dramatic story. And then it went from gratuitous to excessive, from silly to preposterous.
Following some scenes of the enormous crowd that was gathering strength at Grant Park, including an appearance by reporter Jessica Yellin on location, Blitzer spoke to the television audience. "I want you to watch what we're about to do," he said, "because you've never seen anything like this on television."
Then CNN "beamed" Ms. Yellin into Election Center as a snatch of pretentious martial music played in the background. It was the global premiere of what CNN dubbed, erroneously, its "hologram" technology. And it was pretty lame.
The reporter appeared to be standing in a spotlight a dozen feet or so away from Blitzer, looking as though she'd just been teleported by the "matter-energy transport" that always beamed Captain Kirk back to the Starship Enterprise just in time to avoid some alien menace. CNN's engineers are not as adept as Star Trek's Scotty, though, for Ms. Yellin was outlined in the purple fringe that's typical of a bad chromakey effect. Still, as the studio cameras moved--ever so slightly--on the stage (apparently CNN does not believe in stationary cameras), Ms. Blitzer's "hologram" remained in proper position and perspective.
Ms. Yellin spoke: "Hi, Wolf."
And Blitzer, beside himself with awe at the magic wrought by CNN's engineers, continued. "All right, a big round of applause. We did it. There she is, Jessica Yellin. I know you're in Chicago, but we've done something, a hologram. We beamed you in. We beamed you in here into the CNN Election Center. I want to talk to you as I would normally be talking to you if you were really face to face with me. I know you're a few -- at least a thousand miles away, but it looks like you're right here."
What most thrilled Wolf, it seems, was that the television audience could now see Jessica without distracting stuff behind her on the screen; stuff like the enthusiastic crowd in Chicago; stuff like the story she was covering; stuff like real life.
"You know," he said, "what I like about this hologram and you're a hologram now, Jessica. Instead of having thousands of people behind you screaming and shouting, you know what, we can have a little bit more of an intimate conversation and our viewers can enjoy that as well. How excited are you, Jessica, that this is -- you're the first one that we've beamed into the CNN Election Center?"
Yellin could not resist the comparison to Star Wars. "I know," she remarked, "It's like I follow in the tradition of Princess Leah. It's something else. It's the first time it's been live on television and it's a remarkable setup, if I could tell you about it for a moment. I'm inside a tent in Chicago that's been built -- engineers spent about three weeks doing it."
THREE WEEKS! they spent, setting up 35 high definition cameras in a circle in the bluescreen tent, getting them to communicate with the cameras in New York, and testing and tweaking. All so Jessica Yellin could spend a minute or so "in the studio" with Wolf Blitzer. It is interesting that they did not set up a matching rig in Arizona, where the supporters of John McCain had gathered. Seems like fairness would have called for that. But I digress.
Blitzer closed out the virtual reality segment saying, "All right, Jessica. You were a terrific hologram. Thanks very much. Jessica Yellin is in Chicago. She's not here in New York with us at the CNN Election Center, but you know what. It looked like she was right here. It's pretty amazing technology."
Later, introducing contributor Roland Martin, Blitzer noted, "OK, the real Roland is here, not a hologram." And then he issued what seemed a threat, "All right, but maybe one of these days, Roland, we'll bring you in. We'll beam you in to the CNN Election Center."
Oh, please. Let's hope not.
The amazing television first did not go unnoticed by the press. Here is what a few people had to say about it:
"That is the creepiest thing I have ever seen," wrote Brooke Cain on The Raleigh News & Observer's blog.
"Not only does this technology seem completely creepy, but it's without a doubt one of the most useless and unnecessary pieces of phantasmagoric TV ever enacted," said engadget.com blogger Joshua Topolsky.
"I thought the whole thing was a bit silly and sort of annoying," CNet's Marguerite Reardon observed.
Anna Pickard reported on the "gimmick" for The Guardian: "Why? Because we can. We COULD have a correspondent that could say what she says perfectly well in 2D on a normal screen. But why should we, when we can have a hologram?"
On his Washington Post blog, Style columnist Tom Shales wrote: "It was a cute trick, but how did it substantially contribute to the coverage? No one seemed to know."
CNN was not the only network to embellish the story with over-the-top graphics. MSNBC made a 3D virtual U.S. Capitol Building appear atop a table on its set, surmounted by an equally 3D rainbow representation of the Senate seating chart. This was to illustrate the Democrat's progress in picking up seats in the real institution up there in Washington DC, and it, too, was introduced with a bit of verbal fanfare and oohs and ahhs from the network's reporters. But at least the MSNBC graphic served a purpose.
To my mind the real story of this momentous evening was told in the telephoto close-ups of a teary Oprah Winfrey standing in the crowd at Grant's Park and the likewise teary face of Jesse Jackson, also there, whose generation of angry confrontational politics may finally be at an end, and in the chorus of boos that followed Senator McCain's heartfelt congratulations to his opponent, and in the respectful silence of the awestruck crowd in Chicago as the President-Elect put the election and the challenges ahead in an historical perspective.
Perhaps the XBox generation has a new and different visual aesthetic--some kind of post-modern reality-is-manufactured sensibility--and television producers are smart to cater to it. Or maybe those producers underestimate the powerful effect that genuine raw images can have, even on young people raised on video games. But I'm with The Guardian's Anna Pickard on this one; CNN did it because they could. It's the same misguided enthusiasm for technology that's brought us cell phones with features we can't figure out how to use and never will and never wanted in the first place.
Seems like "Yes we can" is the mantra of the day -- in more ways than one.
You can see the CNN hologram incident on their website.
(You might have to watch a soap commercial before you see the video.)