News Article | 1/7/2007

Victory within sight

To walk through WFAA-TV’s new studio in Victory Park is to feel as if you are floating in an intergalactic fishbowl. Nearly two-thirds of the 5,000-square-foot space is contained by glass walls so that, from inside, you are looking out at all the new and high-tech sights of Victory’s plaza: the concrete concourse dotted with kiosks and fountains running up to American Airlines Center, the media wall with four giant LED video screens, the W Hotel.

Of course that also means that, from the outside, you can look in at all the new and high-tech sights of the Channel 8 studio, which begins broadcast operations at 5 a.m. Monday: the high-definition cameras, the news desk, the weather set, the Good Morning Texas set, and all the lights (more than 150) and plasma screens (44).

Like a restaurant moving its kitchen to the front of the house, Channel 8’s new studio invites patrons to take a behind-the-scenes peek, to become not just viewers but spectators.

“This is going to give people a chance to see our broadcasts being made. We wanted the studio to be as transparent as possible,” says Mike Devlin, Channel 8 vice president and station manager. Channel 8 is owned by Dallas-based Belo Corp., which also owns The Dallas Morning News.

“People are awash in video and media now, and I think there’s a real fascination with the process. And we see this as a chance to connect with our audience in a unique and deeper way,” he says.

What “transparent as possible” translates into is a production space that is about 90 percent visible from outside. From the on-camera sets to the backstage work area – a circular desk with computer terminals – almost everything is on view. Just about the only exception is the dressing and makeup area – this is a news studio, after all, not the set of a Dallas edition of MTV’s The Real World.

With all the glass, wire mesh and brushed steel, the look of the studio is futuristic and industrial, sort of like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, only with brighter, warmer colors and a couple of sofas. This aesthetic is in keeping with the studio’s Victory Park setting, where, with all the video screens and a W Hotel tower that looks like a Jetsons-ized bell tower, the effect is Vegas meets Blade Runner.

Monday’s opening kicks off with the daily broadcast of the morning, midday and afternoon news, with Good Morning Texas soon to follow. The only thing missing will be the hustling-bustling crowd of passers-by that the studio and the Victory Park development hope to attract.

A glass-walled television studio on the periphery of a public plaza conjures images of the Today show broadcasting live from Rockefeller Center, and it reflects the station’s desire to tap into the energy and spontaneity that such an urban and interactive setting can provide.

That heart-of-the-city experience may be a standard feature of many network and cable shows, but it’s an uncommon approach for a local station to attempt. “The only local stations I know of doing something like this are in Chicago and Kansas City,” says Dave Muscari, Channel 8’s vice president of product development.

Several details of the studio are designed to enhance that experience: the nearly 100-foot LED ticker wrapping two sides of the studio’s facade that will carry headlines and updates; the giant screen (19 by 32 feet) that will carry the broadcasts; and the adjoining terrace, where viewers will be invited to gather and some segments will be staged.

“This has the potential to be a real communal experience,” Mr. Muscari says. “Obviously, there’s the sizzle component of this project: It’s unique and cutting-edge. But it also gives us a chance to connect with people in a new way, to be at the center point of a new way of being and living in the city.”

The move to that cool and communal new way begins Monday, but between here and there are the complications and inconveniences of present-day reality. Victory Park is long on construction sites and short on parking lots. The mess and noise combined with the cost of valet parking and the long walks for self-parkers thus far have put a crimp on the intensely urban, high-density experience that the development aspires to and on which a sidewalk-spectator-centric news studio depends.

“Victory Park is in a process of evolution, and we’re committed to making people’s experience as pleasant as possible,” says Kristin Gray, spokeswoman for Hillwood Development, the company overseeing the Victory Project.

“This is a huge issue for us. It can make or break the district, and we’re determined to do whatever it takes.”

For Channel 8’s part, Mr. Muscari acknowledges that the future vision for the studio and present reality don’t exactly match. The only spectators for Monday morning’s debut broadcast are likely to be wearing hardhats. But that’s the nature of innovation.

“There’s always a speculative component to doing anything new,” Mr. Muscari says. “But we don’t need the plaza out there to become another Times Square for it to succeed. There are, like, 200 events at American Airlines Center this year, and this studio gives us front-row access to newsmakers and news-making events.”