When the new, state-of-the-art television set installed in the Roy H. Park School of Communications was unveiled at the start of the fall semester, Bob Regan’s excitement probably trumped that of the students gathered in the hallway outside.
The director of Park’s Keshishoglou Center for Global Communications Innovation had spearheaded the project for the past year. During that time he would happily tell all who would listen how the facility was going to catapult the already vaunted reputation of the Park School and its students ahead of other communications schools.
Addressing the eager group before him outside the renovated Studio B, Regan said that David Muir, the ABC World News Tonight anchor and an Ithaca College alumnus, had joked that the desk in the new set – created by the same set designer who crafted Muir’s network set – had better not be better than his.
"And by the way, it is better than his!” Regan quipped, before the doors were opened and students crowded in.
Wear and tear
A permanent set is a big deal for the Park School. Previously, students utilized modular set pieces that were set up for, and broken down after, broadcasts of Newswatch, ICTV’s signature news program. That allowed the studio to be flexible and configured differently for other types of programs, but it was also labor- and time-intensive. The pieces were also starting to show their age in more ways than one.
“We would roll this beat-up looking furniture in,” Chris Wheatley '81, the manager of television and radio operations at the school, said. “[And] It just had a 1990s feel to it.”
That fact became glaringly obvious last year after the Park School made the upgrade to high-definition broadcast. “That's the thing about going HD: All of a sudden you could see every nick and scratch. We were careful with that [old] set, but it got an awful lot of use,” Wheatley said.
Regan noted that the technology overhead was lagging behind the times, too. “If you saw the lighting that was down there before and looked up into the grid, it was like looking at history,” he said. Some of the equipment predated the 1989 construction of Park Hall itself, he added.
While Wheatley had utilized some funds over recent years to replace worn furniture on the set and in the control room, he admits, “I wasn't thinking big. I was thinking a couple hundred [dollars] here, a couple hundred there. It took Bob to say 'Why don't we have a permanent news set?’”
Designed to last
The new set’s clean, modern look incorporates materials and design meant to withstand the vagaries of trend. A cyclorama with a grayscale graphic of lines and small circles stretches along the walls; shelves made of aluminum MDF provide sharp angles for the viewer’s eye. The anchor desk has a glass top and metal frame, seats four, and can be rolled away if necessary. Strips of LED lights are incorporated all throughout these various elements.
The set is loaded with a total of nine LED monitors. A 40-incher is embedded in the front of the news desk, with a video wall composed of four 55-inch screens mounted behind the desk; three more 55-inch monitors mounted to poles “float” in the vertical orientation on stage left, while the last 55-incher floats stage right.
Regan procured the talents of Seth Easter, a scenic designer who contracts with ABC for all their sets, for the project. While Easter is one of the best in the business, Regan was also very conscious of the David Muir connection. “Here we are, the college that has now staked the claim that we have the youngest network anchor in history. No one else can challenge us on that,” Regan said. “So when you put the story together and say the same people who designed and lit his set are doing our set, it really completes the story.”
Easter came to see the space during the spring 2016 semester, and met with Park students and faculty to learn more about their wants and needs for the set. The final design went to a fabrication shop in Brooklyn; once built, it was then taken apart and transported to Ithaca for installation in August. Easter’s ultimate aim was to build something that was as true to professional broadcast sets as possible, within the realities of the budget.
But he also had to factor in longevity. “I do a lot of work where it's on the air for two years, and we throw it away and start again. That one piece was something I really had to take into account for this Ithaca set. Which is why it was kept so simple in terms of the design. It had to be something that could keep going,” Easter said.
LEDing the way
As for the antiquated lighting system: “The first thing I said was 'Look, a set like this needs a great lighting setup. That's what makes a set, is great lighting,’” Easter said. He knew just the man to call: Steven Brill, president and founder of the Emmy Award-winning The Lighting Design Group, who unbeknownst to Easter at the time, happens to be an IC alumnus from the class of 1980.
Brill outfitted the studio with modern LED fixtures and the control system necessary to manipulate them. The system allows for numerous tweaks of color and tone which can give the set an entirely different feel; different configurations will lend themselves to different types of programs, with their own distinct look.
The LEDs also have the added benefit of being far more energy efficient than the old incandescent fixtures, which reduces the cost to power them. They are also produce significantly less heat, which means reduced cooling costs for the building.
Brill said he’s glad to see Park investing in infrastructure like this, as it will bring the production values of student projects even further in line with industry standards. “When these students graduate, I’m sure it will prove to be invaluable for them to have had hands-on experience with state-of-the-art equipment. This will give them a huge advantage in the job market,” Brill said.
Regan echoes that sentiment. He said that schools of communication are becoming more and more competitive in their offerings. “And what they offer, and who teaches those courses are all important. But how does it look? How does it feel when [you] get there? What are the standards of the school's equipment, facilities, and people?” he asked.
“And I think, by far right now, we're in the tops of that. We're better than we've ever been,” he said.
Serious discussion about the new, permanent set began early in the 2015-16 academic year. Regan championed the cause with the full support of Dean Diane Gayeski '74, who committed the Park School Annual Fund to the endeavor.
The set – including design, fabrication, installation and new lighting equipment and controls – came in just under $220,000.
“Diane understands better than anyone that when you have a facility like ours now — state of the art — you need a state-of-the-art set. You can't just put it together because it's a cheap thing to do,” Regan said.
Gayeski is encouraging alumni to donate back to the Annual Fund, so the school can begin saving for further big initiatives in the future, and yearly opportunities to support students and faculty.
“Many Park School alumni were involved in ICTV and the set is a really clear example of what can be done with their donations. It was not one big donation – but rather lots of relatively modest donations that allowed us to do this,” she said.
Wheatley, the director of television and radio programs, said that students will recognize that the Park School didn’t scrimp in this endeavor, and wants them to have the very best. "I feel as though any kind of limitations students have felt they had in terms of what they could achieve, or the kind of look they could have -- that's a thing of the past. We're eliminating limitations," he said.