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Television News: Stay Tuned for a Brand-New Set

As executives come and go and with digital clarity on the way, stations are keeping specialized design firms busy.


KCBS-TV anchor Michael Tuck is working on his fourth set in eight years at Channel 2, a sleek black and wood model featuring a miniature re-creation of the Los Angeles skyline in the background.

If tradition holds, KCBS will probably demolish the expensive set before long, especially now that the general manager who commissioned it abruptly left in September after just two years with the station.

In TV news, as executives come and go, the life expectancy of any particular grouping of desks, chairs and mood lighting is about three to four years.

The ever-increasing disposal rate of sets is good news for the small, little-known group of companies dedicated to designing and building news sets. By all accounts, their business is booming.

Around the country, stations have been launching news operations at a record pace--more than 50 Fox Network affiliates in the last two years alone--fueling the already overheated local news competition. Stations are revamping and retooling their sets, including KABC-TV (Channel 7) and KCOP-TV (Channel 13) in Los Angeles this fall.

Although most executives acknowledge that a new set is unlikely to boost ratings, a set make-over is still seen as a quick way to spruce up a station's image. A set costs between $250,000 and $1 million, which may be a worthwhile investment for a third-place news operation with a $10-million budget and a news reader making $1 million a year.

The number of set-design firms has doubled in recent years, with at least six of them competing for business in Southern California. Established news set designers say their revenues have doubled in the last three years.

"Business is good," said Gil Jimenez, a 20-year veteran of set building who runs his own company, Gil Jimenez Broadcast Design in Vista. "We're moving into the new millennium and stations want to look good."

Jimenez was a partner in G&G Designs, a San Diego firm that once had the set-design market virtually to itself before breaking up in 1990. G&G grew to more than 50 employees in an era when stations decided, seemingly en masse, that their sets looked "rinky-dink," Jimenez said.

Today the market is dominated by half a dozen small companies of five to 15 employees, specializing in everything from camera angles to seat-cushion fabrics. With the growth of local news, the top set-design firms are able to generate $3 million to $5 million a year in revenue.

Most build the sets themselves, offering turn-key service on every aspect of the production. Many of the firms are known for a particular design or color scheme.

Hot sets tend to get copied, and news executives and consultants have favorite designers for different projects. When KTLA (Channel 5) redesigned last year, it used Broadcast Design International for the newsroom and Devlin Design Group for the studio set--two San Diego County-based firms that grew out of G&G Designs.

For its new set, unveiled in September, KABC-TV used NewSet, a 4-year-old company with 10 employees based in Los Angeles. Chief Executive Brett Walker worked in furniture construction before starting the company, which has built sets for VH1, in addition to local stations around the country. KABC's 10-year-old set was "old, cold and drab," said station General Manager Arnold Kleiner, who took the reins at KABC in 1996.

The new set is 6,000 square feet, housing both the morning and evening news desks, as well as a special weather set and a huge, state-of-the-art rear-projection television monitor. It also has a mural backdrop of Los Angeles to rival KCBS' skyline.

"If you do a set right, it makes you look like the market," Kleiner said.

KCBS, seeking a different look, purposely avoided the traditional news set builders and hired Cinnabar California Inc., a Burbank-based specialist in Hollywood set construction and models, to build its three-dimensional background, complete with lighting that changes for different times of the day.

In the news set business, designs and gimmicks move in and out of vogue. Over the years, interview "pits," gratuitous plants and video walls all have waxed and waned in popularity.

Big television monitors are hot these days, said Tim Saunders, president of Broadcast Design International, the 8-year-old company that has built sets for KTTV (Channel 11) and Fox Sports. So are two-story sets, "weather centers" and rail-thin plasma screens.

When Broadcast Design built the new set for "CBS Nightly News," anchor Dan Rather wanted a special tunnel installed under the set so his producer could inconspicuously hand him notes during newscasts, Saunders says.

But designers say that despite the technical advances and new, "warmer" colors, there has been little change in the basic concept of two anchors sitting behind a desk with the weather person on the left and the sports guy on the right.

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