msnbc - the news channel of dr. caligari

  Television studios as purposeful design

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Figure 1 & 2:  Poster for the film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and a major interview background from the MSNBC news studio.  Architectural elements collide illogically, eschewing realism, and confusing grounded cognition.



Television and film are two very different genres.  However, when comparing these as modalities of visual communication, they share many similarities in method, content, and scope.  The task of this essay is to broadly explore critical communication theories by drawing visual comparisons between the studio scenic design of the 2006 U.S. cable television news network MSNBC to the art direction of the classic, 1919 silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  These two well-known yet seemingly heterogeneous media productions share startlingly uncanny visual similarities.  The incongruity of this relationship, between black and white film and newscast, between entertainment and information, and between German historical and American contemporary popular media begs a closer examination.  What is the purpose of studio scenic design in television today and what is its role within news presentation?  What is studio scenic design trying to communicate; whose interests are being visualized; and who decides?  Can the recent physical changes in U.S. news be seen as barometers for historical or theoretical critical examinations into journalism, TV, and film?   In short, how is studio scenic design in television news being purposefully articulated; and what can we learn from its implementation? 

Historically, news set designs have always sported a rather unique, and distinguishably unified visual signature.  For five decades, quasi-realistic background combinations of working newsrooms, world maps, city skylines, clocks, and television monitors, among others -- while cliché -- were primarily standing as synecdoche for sensibility.  This history of scenic plainness stabilized perception and aided viewer cognition by proffering auratic rationality to news content.   However, recent pressures from media mergers and deregulation, and advances in news dissemination technologies, along with increasing competitive pressures have radically altered the visual playing field.  Thus, in their haste to increase viewership for increased profitability, news networks, along with the free-lance studio scenic designers they hire, now employ exotic schemas to heighten visual stimulation and fabricate on-air credibility.   This dramatic shifting from more visually rational modernist meta-narratives to today’s techno-rococo scent of postmodernist compositional incredulity falls to the heart of this essay. 

Today’s TV news industry is fostering a visually spectacular and nonsensical combination of theatre, architecture, interior, furniture, graphic, advertising, and retail design -- all grounded upon ever-growing capitalistic machinations.  It is a new, aggressive production strategy based purely on “grabbing eyeballs” which counters most historical sensibilities of visual and journalistic clarity.  How is this to be explained?  Is the work of design to purposefully express designer individuality or principles of social good; or is design simply the contractual embodiment of other particular ends? 

Studio scenic designs are much more than artistic statements of individual expression.  They are, for the purposes of this essay, works-for-hire: visually and dimensionally responsive solutions to specific needs.  Design physically structures the studio environment, grounds identification, frames content, and provides a visual “footing” for both talent and graphic components in news, making it much more than mere decorative packaging.  In total, studio scenic design is a vital participant, a “cast member” that stands center-stage, continuously communicating interpretive cues, not only to the viewer, but also for the networks themselves. These cues have profound communicative significance.  Television remains the largest conduit for news and information into North American homes.  Studio design functionally visualizes, shapes, presents and performs this media environment.  Thus, purposeful design can and should be examined dialectically as tangible artifacts of communication. 

Studio scenic design intersects technology, the culture industries, and the economic situation in contemporary capitalist societies; it must also be seen as a primary embodiment and articulation of modes of media production and distribution, and then, as defining features of existing and emergent society, culture, and everyday life. 


Figure 3 & 4:  Part retail temple and part Star Trek pastiche, surrealistic surroundings with exaggerated furniture skew notions of believability, scale and trust.

        Still, one may ask, what more can or should be said about visual design and communication theory; isn’t the evaluation of pictures the realm of the art critic?   To answer this, W.J.T. Mitchell (2005) posits an important distinction:

“An image is not a picture, but a picture can correspond to it.  …Images are… mental things, residing in the psychological media of dreams, memory, and fantasy.  …The image seems to float without any visible means of support, a phantasmatic, virtual, or spectral appearance.  …That is why we can speak of architectural, sculptural, cinematic, textual, and even mental images while understanding that the image in or on the thing is not all there is to it (84-85).”

Thus, a mediated world hails audiences with particular “visual reciprocities” that can be critiqued broadly, and specifically, in both critical communication and cultural studies because, as Mitchell continues:

“Vision is as important as language in mediating social relations.  …Pictures want equal rights with language, not to be turned into language (47).  It assumes that no theory of media can rise above the media themselves, and that what is required are forms of vernacular theory, embedded in media practices (210).”

   An important distinction must be clarified, however.  Explications of artistic competencies are subsumed in this essay.  Rather, the purpose here is to ground and interpret the visual similarities of MSNBC and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  In terms of their social, political, economic considerations within the theoretical criticisms of, for example, both the Frankfort and Birmingham schools.  By considering studio design as metaphor, these and other interdisciplinary concepts central to the visualization of today’s media institutions can be revitalized for scaffolding more critical interpretations.

         Additionally, this essay’s approach does not rejoin the ontological differences within television and film modalities.  For instance, peripheral distinctions of resolution and photo-realism, public and private audiences, screen size and mobility, immediacy and transparency, temporality and distance, among others (Fiske 1987: 21-36, McLuhan 1964: 268-294, Williams 1975: 62), all range outside the scope here.  Instead, the primary focal point is that actual production elements (ie., scenic design), within MSNBC and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari can be read as meaningful expressions of our changing world. 

        Designs and their expression are, indeed, cultural texts.  This point is crucial because, to date, theoretical analyses of the designed environments of media are virtually nonexistent.  Yet, we are seeing recent and radical changes occurring in broadcast news design at an ever-accelerating pace.  To begin, then, it is prudent to examine these designs using a variety of methods.  By weaving visual comparisons of MSNBC and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to psychoanalytic, political, and economic analyses common to critical communication theory, this essay will attempt to assemble a rich description of current news studio scenic design -- as metaphor and cultural text – through multiple lenses such as news design function, journalistic responsibility, expressionism as visual vocabulary, and practices of capitalism. 

Figure 5 & 6:  Sinisterly painted shadows of light and dark emphasize an anti-natural world where vision is enclosed and sunlight no longer exists.

Broadcast News: Designers and Set Design

        Signs of contemporary capitalist culture surround us.  Indeed, both Frankfort and Birmingham schools see culture as a mode of ideological reproduction and hegemony in which cultural forms help to shape the modes of thought and behavior that induce individuals to adapt to the social conditions of capitalist societies.  These signs of commodity, self, and meaning are manufactured and materialized, visually, through acts of purposeful design.  News studio design is no different; it is an active participant within all televised news media, however this practice has rarely been considered worthy of scholarship.  Moreover, few television scenic designers are academically or professionally trained because there is no educational program in the United States dedicated to the practice of scenic design for television news.  Those few practitioners who have been trained, historically come from the ranks of theatrical stage design or architecture; yet these academies, too, provide little reflexive or theoretical design direction for this craft.  Considering the ubiquity and import of news in our culture, these conditions make for a curiously marginalized and often misconstrued professional discourse; yet one that remains vitally rich for discovery of purpose and consequence.

        So then, for clarifying the role of studio scenic design in news, we must turn to guiding philosophies in several abutting fields:  theatre, architecture, art, and journalism since, as noted above, news studio design is a hybridized synthesis of several kinds of 2D &3D expression.

        Since ancient Greece, theatre has embraced design as a vital production component for contextualization (Pickering 1978), and essential in communicating the text.  As Lee Simonson (1932: 11) states the “scene-designer remains what he has always been: one member of a group of interpreters.”  Robert Edmond Jones (1941:69,74), another American grandmaster in stage design, describes the designer as an “artist of occasions” who “must learn to sense the atmosphere of a play with unusual clearness and exactness.  ...We are all too apt to substitute ingenuity for clairvoyance.  The temptation to invent is always present.” 

        These are fundamental, classical, set design realities.  And although no U.S. educational programs specifically teach scenic design for broadcast news, all theatrically trained scenic designers are well aquatinted with these time-honored sensibilities.  But in news design, designers have few tangible or acknowledged “scripts” for interpreting.  Instead, they are hired primarily on the basis of their ability to aesthetically visualize institutional signs and systems.  Attraction, therefore, trumps notions of theory.  This is not to suggest designers somehow openly collude with news networks to “inject’ meaning into these scripts, or to “engineer consent” (Munson, Warren 1997:16) through tacit strategies of media effects and technological determinism.  Yet, in terms of historical news perspective, MSNBC is only one of several news networks employing ever more kinds of visual transmogrification.   But, what “scripts” are being followed; and are they purposefully “written,” encoded on behalf of the newscasting profession, or manifestations of cultural negotiation, or hegemonic domination?  Raymond Williams (1958) claims that creativity lies at the very core of Marxism, but he also warns that artistic creativity and personal self-creation is a social process and should not be merely reduced to the practice of representation, refection, or ideology.  In this light, mass media should not be viewed in terms of highbrow or lowbrow art, rather as social and cultural scripts that demand our attention. 

        Whereas the Frankfurt school would analyze these social texts as articulations of political economy, and British cultural studies might emphasize subversive moments of popular culture, oppositional subcultures, and an active audience; these do not speak specifically to the purpose of studio design or to the visual sea change in news design today.  For this we must also review the role of journalism.


Figure 7 & 8:  Both production designs proffer dark and complicated non-contextualized worlds.  Unusual camera perspectives frame high-contrast extremes of strange compositional perspectives.

The Purpose of Journalism Design

    The idea of journalism is as complex as scenic design, for as James Cameron (1967:170-173) has observed, “journalism is not and never has been a profession; it is a trade or a calling that can be practiced in many ways, but it can never be a profession since its practice has neither standards nor sanctions.”  This atmosphere fundamentally complicates the expectations of both crafts, magnifying today’s confusion about what journalism and news are, and role scenic design plays in the interpretation of news.  For instance, how do designers (or viewers for that matter) distinguish “hard news” from “talk news”, “news magazine” from “tabloid news”, and opinion from reportage?  Without concise guidelines clarifying intention, both design and journalistic content become myopic, self-indulgent. 

        If today’s news and information could somehow be publicly categorized more narrowly into some agreeable nomenclature, say: “criers, drummers, messengers, and minstrels (Grossberg, et al 1998:320);” that “serve a reasonably clear purpose: description, exploration, tabulation, or decoration (Tufte 2001:13)” journalism and its “look” would be infinitely clearer.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to parse media into clear-cut categorizations.  James Carey (1985: 41) writes that “doing journalism” is little different from “doing art” or “doing religion.” And Stanley Fish (Zelizer 2004:13) suggests one role of journalism is to “not solve problems, but to signify.”  But what exactly should be signified and how?  How can scenic design parallel the goals of journalism with so little guidance?  This question frames the true challenge within the scenic design predicament (Bay 1974). 

        According to Joshua Meyrowitz (1985:112), “much of the content of news is shaped by journalistic decisions, and by political and economic factors, the form of news is often greatly affected by the nature of the medium.”  This “nature” can, of course, burden scenic design: economics of ratings, viewer eye fatigue, oral subordination, visual and media illiteracy, among others, are continually at issue; and all are complicated by what James Fallows (1996:182) calls the “tyranny of technology.”  Moreover, throughout news history, financial sponsorship greatly influences content and purpose (Barnouw 1970:40).  Still, these crucial issues orbit a central point:  Which news - what design?

        Without a clear idea of its own purpose, journalism is, by default, increasingly defined by outside interests; and there are always dire consequences when allowing others, including designers, to help shape the public’s perception of journalism.  If, as one jeremiad goes, “news is what the director says it is,” journalism should, or at least could utilize that apothegm and assume leadership responsibility.  Even without instructive journalistic guidelines, however, the designer’s critical role in “appropriate imaging power” (Newton 2005:434) should, at the very least, parallel that of physicians: do no harm.

        Journalistic scenic design’s raison d'être, then, is to explore neutral, factual environments where information is naturally allowed to come to the forefront.  News backgrounds must not obfuscate purpose, over-compliment the content, or inhibit the viewer from focusing on a cogent text.  Set design should strive first to reflect journalism’s theoretical principles of truth and loyalty to citizens (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2001), and dignify its visual participation amongst the great levelers of democratic discourse.  These are formidable challenges to both journalist and designer who are pressured to overuse, and misuse, the visual expression of technology simply to physically and emotionally hold viewer attention.  And so today, we are seeing examples that can be clearly associated to another historical moment in extreme visuallity:  Expressionism.


Figure 9 & 10:  Unnatural expressions of the outside world invoke foreboding doom reminiscent of scenes from other visually oppressive art direction: Blade Runner or Apocalypse Now.

Expressionism and News Design

Perhaps the best-known example of emotionally charged expressionistic scenic design is the 1919 German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.   It was during the Weimar Republic that another artistic and economic convergence can be historically paralleled.  As Hake (1993) states:

“Language is a good indicator of change, and it was indeed through the terminological shift from Kino to Film that new approaches to the medium first entered the public consciousness.  …Whereas Kino emphasized the side of reception, including the framework of exhibition and the diverse cultural practices associated with cinema as an experience and event, Film referred to the finished product, in its function either as a commodity or a work of art.  …Through the fetishization of the filmic object, the utopian dream of cinema as a democratic art was replaced by categories of value and quality – until the late twenties, when the concept of film as a political weapon would again give meaning to the term “mass medium.  Most importantly, the linguistic shift from Kino to Film sanctioned the transformation of the film business from a small cottage industry into a large industrial complex that included production facilities, motion picture theatre chains, publishing ventures, and a large pool of skilled and unskilled labor (107-108).”

        The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene and art directed by expressionistic artists Hermann Warm, Walter Röhrig and Walter Reimann, was one the first films shot solely in a studio environment.   It launched an influential eight-year period that newly considered film production as a communicative art form.  By 1919, however, Expressionism, as an identifiable artistic period was already waning.  And, as Ara H. Merjian (2003:168) writes, praise for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was far from universal, “In its stage effects, and set work, much expressionism film stands as a mere hybridized maquillage – (Rudolf) Arnheim indicts The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in particular.  This film represents for him an alchemical disaster, a grafting of painted and architectonic artificiality onto the pure surface of film.”   It should also be stated that, just as we are witnessing ever-increasing television sensationalism today, German censorship laws were briefly relaxed between 1918 and 1920.  During this time Germany experienced a flood of pornographic films produced under the guise of sex-education cinema.  Thus, strong parallels can be made with the development of Weimar film, the dramatic shift in today’s broadcast news sensationalism, and to media’s long history of ratcheting up visual extremes, purely for profit, and then cloaking the results under a guise of free speech (Hake 1993:109).

        Specifically however, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari remains artistically notable for its startlingly un-natural scenery and disorienting feel, epitomized by Expressionism’s radical experimentation in visual sensibility.  Scenic walls, floors, and ceilings imposed interiors of structural impossibilities.  Right angles were shunned.  Windows and doors were constructed in distorted, acute shapes.  Chiaroscuro lighting magnified the grotesque.  Sinisterly painted shadows of light and dark emphasized an anti-natural world where sunlight does not exist.  Leaning buildings towered above people, defying gravity, as if ready to tumble.  Unusual camera perspectives framed strange compositional extremes.  The production design depicted an insane world, and provided “a perfect transformation of material objects into emotional ornament” (Kracauer 1947:69).

        While these visual descriptors may ring familiar when comparing MSNBC, it cannot be underestimated how strongly this new style impressed the scenic design world of that day.  Joseph Urban, the pre-emanate U.S. designer of stage and film during the early 20th century, recalls:

  "I sent my whole staff to see 'Dr. Caligari’, and then I called them all together – the directors, the technical experts and the stage hands – and I gave them a short lecture about it, telling them just what it meant to me and what vistas it seemed to open up for the profession in which they were engaged.  You couldn't hear a restless motion in the course of the talk.  No one lighted a cigaret (sic).  And when it was over, the whole crowd went out in twos and threes and more, earnestly discussing the problems and questions of art, probably for the first time in their lives.”

(Typed manuscript with handwritten date "1921 or 1922")

Urban’s professional reflection illustrates the power of expressive scenery as communication; indeed, it marked German Expressionism as an instrumental visual conceit in cinema design reaching well into the development of American film noir (Smith p:54).

        Although this production style has been widely imitated in various artistic formats, the film’s mise-en-scene reveals an obsession with “automatized, trancelike states [and] the eruption of irrational and chaotic forces from beneath the surface of a mechanized modern world” (Baldick 2001).  This was pervasively contemporary as Sigfried Kracauer (1947:6-7) has observed, “What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological dispositions - those deep layers of collective mentality.  …In the course of spatial conquest, films of fictions and films of fact alike capture innumerable components of the world they mirror.”

        While news design is truly “never innocent or neutral” (Barnhurst, Nerone 2001:9), it must also be remembered that stage, film, and television scenic design (entertainment) differ widely from broadcast news design (information) in both approach and temperament.  The advent of Expressionism exerted a new visual vocabulary of spectacular angst and stridency, a purpose in direct opposition to realistic fidelity.  There were, however, some oppositional reactions to this new style, as with Bertolt Brecht, who, in 1922 “took a sharp turn toward the stage rather the screen (Meuller 1989),” and as Walter Benjamin writes in his essay The Author as Producer:

“Brecht returned to the most basic elements of the theater.  He was content, so to speak, with a podium.  He dispensed with complicated plots.  In this way he succeeded in changing the functional connection between the stage and the audience, the text, and the performance, the director and the author (ibid 3-4).” 

In this essay, trappings of expressionism are considered pejoratively for they suggest most everything journalism should not (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2001). Psychological eruptions and overtly theatrical complications have little functional place in journalism and visual information production.

Figure 11 & 12: Windows, doors, and walls are constructed with distorted angularity, which along with color, express surreal notions of psychological torment.

Television of the Grotesque

        Broadcast news set design, of course, is no more specifically bound to the stylistic sensibilities of Naturalism or Realism than it is to Expressionism or to the  theatre of the Absurd and the Macabre.  By definition, infinite combinations of styles of news, regional markets, targeted audiences, times of broadcast, among others, should encourage opportunities for rich varieties of production design.  MSNBC’s specific 24-hour visual approach, however, begs further critique.  Throughout the broadcast day, each MSNBC “franchise” greets viewers with one enveloping studio environment: part carnival theme park - part incomprehensible technological info-factory.  It remains, by any measure, a radical visual departure from all news design that had gone before.  At its premiere, industry insiders joked that it looked like a “bad shopping day at Circuit City.”   Retail box stores, however, are succinctly clearer and more focused in their visual intentions. 

        The MSNBC studio is a hodgepodge of disjointed, foreboding, surrealistic scenic statements that appear more video game than newscast.  Color is garishly saturated to maximum and syncopated angularly for visual punctuation.  Objects and cameras spin and fly with no apparent logic.  Illumination is dark, shadowed, eerily colliding and melding the enormous backgrounds into phantasmagoric compositions.  Eye-jerking, faux information crowds every camera shot.  Photographic wall-murals are rawboned caricatures of urgent line and form.  MSNBC’s unmistakable visual conceit oddly heeds Wiene’s film’s promotional tag-line, “Du mußt Caligari werden”: “You must become Caligari.”  And few phrases in art history, or cultural theory, more directly invite, or hail, the always-already viewer than this Althusserian interpellation.

        The MSNBC set design, unarguably a tour d’force of expression, may be perfectly appropriate for theatre or film, but not journalism, and for several reasons.  Viewer “attention suffers from two limitations: first in the number of optical units it can encompass, and second, in the limited duration in time to focus on one optical situation” (Kepes 1995:44).  Once the eye is physically mesmerized by voluminous stimulation there is little time left for verbal cognition.  Moreover, scenic design’s true communicative role lives only in support of the text.  When MSNBC’s scenery is combined with hourly doses of stilted, sardonic language, and comic irony mixes endlessly with ambivalently abnormal content (“Countdown with Keith Olberman”, “Abrams Report”,  “Imus in the Morning”, “Scarborough Country”), it brews a presentational concoction not unlike Felini’s Satyricon (Thompson 1972). MSNBC’s combination of sneering text, Expressionistic mise-en-scene, and borderline pornographic presentation certainly commands viewer attention, but its form is an unmistakable Theatre of the Grotesque.  Here, again Hake (1993) makes an interesting historical parallel:

                “Like Kracauer, (Walter) Benjamin examined modernity in the light of the intricate relations between cinema, visual pleasure, and modern life-styles.  …Benjamin’s Paris of the shopping arcades, boulevard society, iron constructions, and world exhibitions in a way provides the backdrop for Kracauer’s sociological-musical reconstructions…(262-263)”

Historical referencing to artistic expression, however, can sometimes be misleading, and these are not the sole focus of this essay.  But then, what can explain the rush to employ these opaquely fantastical visual techniques?  How did American news design, and its designers, arrive at this point?  McGowan & Kunkle (2004) offers one sensible response:

“Lacan saw the symbolic order as a machine that functioned perfectly, that determined the existence of subjects so thoroughly that they were often unable even to recognize this.  For Althusser, subjectivity itself is a deception, the process of ideology, and the proper response of the film theorist became that of exposing the ideological work that films perform, showing how the cinema employs the process of identification in order to further the subjection of subjects (xiv-xv).”

Figure 13 & 14:  Leering buildings tower above people as if ready to tumble, defying the natural logics of a sensible world.

MicroSoft and General Electric

        As Kracauer (1947:5) observed, media “of a nation reflect its country’s mentality because they are never the product of single individuals, and that they must always appeal to a mass market.”  Given this observational point, viewers might expect a joint, global “journalistic” venture between MicroSoft and General Electric (two of the world’s largest corporations) to produce something less overtly susceptible to critical visual comparisons.  From all options, why did “they” choose this design approach? 

        “They” is the Production Design Group (PDG).  It is the design subsidiary of Jack Morton Worldwide (JMW), a promotional conglomerate employing “600 creative, strategic and production professionals” that “aspires to be the world standard for experiential marketing”.  Long gone are the days of the decentralized individual designer, sole proprietorships, or small “boutique” design houses within broadcast design -- high-stakes competitive marketplace tends to that.  JMW’s formidable “seduction” specialties include public events; business-to-business, internal, and consumer marketing strategies.  Their website makes no apologies for positioning client “marketing” and “brand” above all other considerations.  (Why should it?)  And while PDG does give scant mention to their “first love” of theatre, there is no mention throughout the web site of understanding the tenets of journalism or promoting news principles (  Yet by NBC’s own account, the MSNBC “set is a visual masterpiece.  The designers were able to combine technology and aesthetics to make one of the most detailed and cutting edge studio sets on television” (

        This in itself is not news -- what media design today is not infused with technology and incremental commercialization?  Thom Mayne (Jodidio 2002:120), the principal of the renowned architectural firm Morphosis however, clarifies the paradox of influence and design, “The business of architecture serves the client, you go out there and find out what the clients are interested in today.  Real architecture is the antithesis of that.”  This logical and capitalist critique notwithstanding, another critical observation is the breadth and speed of acceptance, negotiated on all fronts, of MSNBC-JMW-PDG’s technological expressionism.  Broadcast news, within a span of only a few years, has evolved into a kind of normative “Fordism,” where information is no longer deemed believable or authoritative by networks or viewers if its presentation doesn’t resemble a “Vegas” theme park encrusted with layers of technology.

        Newscasts from every network, in every market across the country now feature elaborate, multi-storied studio sets, soaring jib cameras, acreage of monitor walls, and a bevy of wide-screen plasma TVs.  This is no accident.  News is, increasingly, a clearinghouse for capitalist seductions like product promotion.  For example, one favorite promotional product is HDTV.  The entire U.S. television industry, with full support from the FCC, is in overdrive to seduce viewers into “upgrading” to more expensive technologies (Brinkley 1997:116).  The intention to use news to legitimize HDTV -- and vice versa -- is thinly veiled and encourages designers, who are both artists and salesmen, to follow in lockstep.  Therefore, a question arises: Do visual embellishments increase as journalistic priorities wane?  Yes, and more, for as Ann Marie Barry (1997:174) comments, “media are consciously manipulated to produce specific effects -- whether in the realm of aesthetic response or in pursuit of ratings and advertising revenues.”  The rhetorical ethos in commercial architecture theory offers yet another angle of illumination:

  “Thus strategies for adapting buildings, or an entire urban mall, to the needs of receivers, for instance, bank customers and employees, are frequently directed to achieve several dominant purposes: to produce economic value, to attract consumption, to create aesthetic worth, to impress, and to communicate.  Such overt visual appeal appears to be no less in innumerable other visual structures.” (Parker, Hildebrandt 1996:229-230)

Where news “value” is measured solely in commercial terms, visual design decisions can be evaluated through political and economic lenses.  But, whichever comes first in this simplified example of Stuart Hall (1973) logic -- fulfilling viewer preferences (the chicken) or creating viewer preferences (the egg) -- it is important to recall as does John Dewey (Munson, Warren 1997:27) that “society exists not only by transmission, by communication, but it may be fairly said to exist in transmission, in communication.”  And, in our mediated world – what is not communication?

Figure 15 & 16:  Cameras move nonsensically, flying and spinning through space, creating scenes of unbalance, confusion, emergency and alarm.

Another New(s)

        If MSNBC’s goal is in fact to be the leading news provider, then its current scenic design confuses our public definition of journalism.  Equally, if MSNBC is providing variable content forms throughout the broadcast day (which is fair to say it does) then using one, cavernous, aggressively expressionistic, multi-purpose design under one banner does disservice to its content, to journalism, and to the viewers.  This is not to say creative and stimulating art direction is at cross-purposes to journalism.  News, by design, can and should be visually engaging and compelling; indeed, cognition depends on it.  But what is communicated when overtly concocted presentational styles are highly non-contextualized, aggressively championed, constructed for neural impact, and then gratuitously applied?  What new is being created?

For another uniquely multidisciplinary insight, we can turn again to the arts.  Sergei Eisenstein, in Film Sense, quotes Renè Guillerè’s article on the jazz age:

“ the form of jazz, if we look into the musical element and into its method of composition we find a typical expression of this new esthetic.  ...In jazz all elements are brought to the foreground.  This is an important law that can be found in painting, in stage design, in films, and in poetry of this period.  ...In antique perspective the planes behaved much like the wings of a stage setting - receding in a funnel towards the depths where the vista closes on a colonnade or on a monumental stair-case.  In our new perspective there are no steps, no promenades.  ...A man enters his environment - the environment is seen through the man.  Both function through each other.  In other words, in our new perspective - there is no perspective.” (p: 96-97)

Eisenstein, sounding curiously postmodern, believed this to be a crucial turning point for some new expressive filmic style adds:

“All sense of perspective and of realistic depth is washed away by a nocturnal sea of electric advertisement.  ...It is only in periods of decadence in the arts that this centripetal movement changes to a centrifugal movement, hurling apart all unifying tendencies - tendencies that are incompatible with all epoch that places an over-emphasis on individualism” (1942:100). 

        Without belaboring Eisenstein’s words, any idealistic notion of news content without “perspective” is improbable, but it nevertheless remains an ethical goal for “hard news” journalism.  However, when weighing the purposes of journalism, the new visual perspectives aired on MSNBC are merely fractured backgrounds of journalistic incompleteness and narcissistic expression.  To this point Eisenstein recalls Nietzsche:

“...What is the characteristic of all literary decadence?  It is that life no longer resides in the whole.  The word gets the upper hand and jumps out of the sentence, the sentence stretches far and obscures the meaning of the page, the page acquires life at the expense of the whole - the whole is no longer a whole.  ...The whole has ceased to live altogether; it is composite, summed up, artificial, an unnatural product.” (p:100)

Considering the whole of MSNBC’s broadcast day, it is clear that visual intention is getting the upper hand and “jumping out” of the content, proffering a news product that favors sensorial titillation above cognition and information.   Today, this precedent resets the standards of broadcast news design to new lows. 

Figure 17 & 18: Scenery is a hodgepodge of disjointed, foreboding, surrealistic statements.  Color is garishly saturated to maximum and applied randomly for visual punctuation.


        This essay has attempted to broadly illuminate the current condition of studio scenic design for broadcast news.  It has also tried to situate this condition inside abutting critical theories of communication, the arts, and journalism.  But the task is difficult because media targets are always moving.  At this writing, rumors swirl that MicroSoft and NBC may soon part ways and that the remaining venture will be renamed “NBC News Channel”, stoking further debate about whether the appellation “news” characterizes actual content any more clearly.  Meanwhile, almost everything about broadcast news continues to mutate.  Whatever remaining connections between news presentation and theatrical principle, or journalism and democratic design, may eventually blur into irrelevancy as new evolving media blend and citizens, as always, ferret technologies to their advantage. 

        Certainly, technology is here to stay and we should be happy for that.  “It is the vitality and subtlety of feeling which results that gives the work its place in the sun, and it makes no difference whether it was achieved with paint, stone or machine” (Bel Geddes 1932:12).  It is, however, when the form of news design actively opposes journalistic purpose that confusion arises.  “Imperial grandeur ...presents an intimidating authoritativeness create a clientele that would be a bit submissive and ...less likely to question the [client’s] claims of competence” (Parker, Hildebrandt 1996:234).

        What can be the future direction of broadcast news set design when its purpose is pirated?  Increasingly, we see scenic approaches that are obstacles to understanding; mere sandwich boards for interests other than journalism.  Still, news design does remain a kind of a visual barometer, not for supporting information, but merely as a symbol for distinguishing media genres, and for announcing the intentions of news providers.  Apparently, networks still believe we need the ability to somehow recognize news when we see it… or do we?

        Most TV networks will continue to provide “news”:  ABC, CBS, CNN, FOX, PBS, ESPN, E! Entertainment, MTV, The Weather Channel, C-SPAN , Comedy Central, local news stations, public access, to name only a few.  In theory, this should be an embarrassment of journalistic riches for adding depth and texture to democratic discourse.  But without some journalistic imprimatur, news scenic visualization, as with public news consumption, stumbles in contextualization.  This essay argues that, when examined from the perspectives of visual communication and cultural studies, “harder” or “straighter” journalism requires more production transparency.  Meanwhile other styles with gratuitous editorialized content and embellished presentational forms, like the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari approach at MSNBC, must fall squarely within other, clearly labeled, non-journalistic news categories. For if news continues to blur without defining clarification, the true dimensionalities of journalism along with its visualization will ultimately founder.  Indeed, we are witnessing changes in dimensionality, as realistic backgrounds at every news organization are literally being flattening into two-dimensional, indecipherable iconologies of graphics-plus-text.

        Perhaps only journalism itself can lead the way out of this morass.  Visual rejiggering cannot rescue an institution adrift in public perception.  However, as parent corporations react to doomsday scenarios from DVR’s, TiVo, VOD, the Internet, and other interactive platforms; news networks panic, fearing their legacy business models may no longer be viable.   And so, any probable, profitable, reaction will inevitably be to continue to respond in typical network fashion by turning up the “volume” with still more visually sensational appeals. 

        This bodes ill for the kind of thoughtful, reflective, and respectful visual cognition necessary for democratic discourse.  Certainly, a simpler, cleaner, back-to-basics design approach is one remedy for better-broadcast journalism.  Likewise, in-depth and classic “shoe leather” reporting style may be another way to redirect cognitive imbalances between visual and verbal information.  Blogs, vlogs, or other “unadorned” venues may also prove to be excellent motivational vehicles for certain types of news re-inventions, at least until they too succumb to the weight of decorative debris from influences antithetical to the principles of communication design.  All these, however, are monumental tasks when expressions of culture become “displaced”, as Laura Mulvey states:

“Commodity fetishism is a political symptom particular to capitalism and those societies that come under its sway.  Commodity fetishism also bears witness to the persistent allure that images and things have for the human imagination and the pleasure to be gained from belief in phantasmagorias and imaginary systems of representation.  Objects and images, in their spectacular manifestations, are central to the process of disavowal, soaking up semiotic significance and setting up elisions of affect.  Most of all they are easily sexualized.” (1996:5)

        As journalism struggles to define its craft, news scenic design has lost its way entirely.  Ultimately, as Ann Marie Barry (1997:333) writes, “we must develop a critical understanding of how media can and does manipulate images to affect thought and emotion.”  We must “raise our ‘visual IQ’s’ to the level of our technological capabilities [to] gain a basic understanding of how our perception works.”  This is why this essay begins so earnestly, encouraging a historical, classical, intellectual bridging of interdisciplinary theory.  Our mediated world needs further examination -- particularly visual examination connected to the combined critical theories of the Frankfort and Birmingham schools.   As media “remediation” (Bolter & Grusin 2000) mutates all that is before us, expanding scholarship of what is known to that which is newly created and experienced, may indeed be the only method of addressing our future.  As Bourdieu (1996:11) so succinctly states, “intellectual discourse remains one of the most authentic forms of resistance to manipulation and a vital affirmation of freedom of thought.”


Figure 19 & 20:  Close-up compositions, combined with ill-proportioned two-dimensional backgrounds, exaggerate facial expressions and build auras of psychotic disorientation.


The images of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari are from “The History of Cinema” series by Delta Entertainment Corporation.  Please: Purchase the entire DVD from:

The images of MSNBC television network are available for viewing 24 hours a day.  Please: Contact your media service provider is you do not already receive this programming.

All images provided here are for educational purposes only: Media cannot properly be evaluated without fair-usage of its imagery.  The author believes he complies with section 30 (1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988, which states that “Fair dealing with a work for the purpose of criticism or review, of that or any other work or of a performance of a work, does not infringe any copyright in the work provided that it is accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement.”


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December  2006


An American

resident of Canada, experimenting with new forms of critical media ethnography in Cultural Farming.