When the new set for CCTV’s Nightly News debuts later this spring, in Rem Koolhaas’s iconic tower, nearly half of China’s population will be tuned in to see the swoopy screens and ultra high-res LED technology that will vaunt China’s favorite newscast into the forefront of broadcast design.
The sets, which feature columns and a serpentine desk wrapped in-high res screens, are designed around the latest in LED technology, which uses 2.5 mm pixels. Prior to this project, the highest resolution screens featured four mm pixels (by comparison, outdoor rock concert screens or those in Times Square have 10 to 12 mm pixels).
"Screens with 2.5 mm pixels are unbelievably crisp, and very, very expensive," says New York set designer Jim Fenhagen.
American broadcast technology has yet to catch up to this standard—but will, as Fenhagen and his team from Jack Morton Worldwide download what they learned from their high-profile project. "We definitely grew a lot," he says. "This will eventually make its way into American design."
Fenhagen, senior vice president of design at Jack Morton Worldwide, has long been the go-to guy in America’s broadcast fraternity. With nearly 20 Emmy’s littering his home office, Fenhagen can claim credit for some of America’s most iconic TV environments, from The Colbert Report and The Daily Show to Good Morning America, from Martha Stewart to the NBA for TNT, from the Golf Channel to CBS’s The NFL Today.
The Chinese tapped Fenhagen and his crew after a global search for a team that could catapult their broadcast into the ranks of other international news leaders. "They wanted to be on a par with the BBC, CNN, and Sky News—to be cutting-edge, and to be an equal," says Fenhagen back in New York after a grueling pre-New Year’s run-up to the project’s deadline. "Money wasn’t the defining issue. They wanted the most contemporary tools and an ‘international style,’ not a Chinese look."
It didn’t hurt Fenhagen’s case that he had been the designer behind the Sky News set, and that Jack Morton already had an office in Beijing. But the Chinese still put him to the test before awarding the CCTV contract, hiring him to design a bureau in Nairobi, Kenya, to see if the Jack Morton team could understand the nuances of Chinese culture, and could operationally pull off a set design far from its New York headquarters.
When that project ended successfully, complete with a hand-off featuring an African and Chinese drum ceremony, Fenhagen went into high gear. The stakes were high. CCTV’s "Nightly News" has an audience of some 500 million people. Not bad, when you think that NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams recently celebrated its best week since the 2012 Olympics with a paltry 10.7 million viewers. Even Super Bowl 2013, one of the highest rated TV programs ever tracked, garnered a limp 108.4 million viewers.
More complicated set elements were built in New Jersey and shipped to China, when it became clear that the expertise to pull off the entire project wasn’t available locally. And it quickly became apparent that no other assumptions should go un-tested. "Things we’d take for granted—like electricity power loads—were initially inconceivable," he says.
Given the building’s fraught history (a hotel, attached to the CCTV building caught fire in 2009, killing one firefighter and injuring seven others), fire codes, requiring that everything be shut down at night, proved a sticking point. Typically, LED systems, which last forever, are never shut down. Much negotiation ensued.
While cutting-edge technology was a goal, any overt Chinese design elements weren’t. "It took us a long time to figure out what they wanted," says Fenhagen. "We offered them designs referencing Chinese culture, but they were rejected."
Instead, Fenhagen says, the Chinese team, overseen by Mr. Sun Yusheng, vice president of CCTV and the Chinese equivalent of Roone Arledge, responded to more subtle design cues. "There was a point where we realized that certain shapes appealed to them. Much of modern design is based on right angles, which we’ve used a lot. But when we showed them that, they didn’t like it."
"The circle shape, however, really resonated, given its symbolic meaning of prosperity, the ongoing cycle of life, yin and yang," he says. The whole set is built on a tracking platform that allows viewers to peer through a glass wall into a newsroom where 70 people work.
In addition, each decision needed consensus to move forward, a cultural curve ball that ripped through schedules and kept producers in a state of high alert to try and meet deadlines, while juggling 13-hour time zone differences.
Early in the process, Fenhagen and his team, lead by senior designer Andre Durette, realized that the social aspects of the collaboration were as critical to the project’s success as the design.
"At work, it’s all very business-like," Fenhagen says, "but then in the evening there were many dinners, always featuring a series of toasts about relationships and trust, and how our cultures could get to know each other and overcome obstacles."
And, of course, there were gifts, an important part of Chinese culture. Fenhagen received an elaborate tea set and a book of calligraphy. In return, he brought uniquely American presents: a Ralph Lauren tie, books of NYC images from the Metropolitan Museum, baseball memorabilia.
International audiences will be able to see Fenhagen’s work later this spring, when the International News Network goes live around the globe for people who want to watch the news in Chinese, and from a perspective you won’t find on CNN.