When the new CNN studio for American Morning with Paula Zahn went on-air in September 2002, it became the latest in a trend: Morning news shows with a New York streetscape background. Walled by a glass shell on three sides, the studio provides CNN watchers from 7am to 10am ET with a view of Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center, and pedestrians making their way up Sixth Avenue with a view inside. Constructed in a spur of the Time-Life Building between 50th and 51st Streets, the facility is just blocks away from the streetfront studio for NBC's The Today Show, and from the Fox News Channel's glassed-in anchor room. But American Morning with Paula Zahn, broadcasting front and center off the Time-Life Building plaza, arguably occupies an even more central location.
“Increasingly, entertainment architecture wants to be not in an industrial zone, but in the midst of things,” says Bice C. Wilson, AIA, who with his partner Antonio Argibay, AIA, runs Meridian Design Associates (MDA), architect on the Time-Life Studios. “We call it ‘branding content in place.’ In the 1950s and 60s, people wanted their content from Mt. Olympus; now, they know there's a man behind the curtain. They're comfortable with seeing production technology. Their television's a window, and they want to be able to go through that window. They also want to be able to go to the real place and see it and touch it.”
Wilson says that what this means for MDA, which has been responsible for broadcast facilities for Martha Stewart Living and The Late Show with David Letterman, and for the CBS The Early Show's own streetfront studio in the GM Building, is, “We're frequently being asked to take a building that was not intended to be a television studio and turn it into one.” The CNN studio, which is really a smaller offshoot of the 48-story Time-Life Building, is a case in point: It used to be a branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank.
It also is a smaller facility than MDA's original feasibility study for CNN had envisioned. With the American Morning studio and a separate black-box studio for Connie Chung Tonight on the ground floor, and support spaces below, on the concourse level, CNN's total leasehold at the Time-Life Building is about 16,000 sq. ft. “Based on a traditional model of producing a show where everything is done on location,” says Wilson, “they needed 30,000 sq. ft. We were able to make it work because they made a brave decision: They weren't going to control it on-site.”
Instead, the broadcast control room for both shows is downtown, at 5 Penn Plaza. “This could not have been done five or six years ago,” Wilson continues. “The only way it was practical was with fiber-optic and digital technology.” Says Argibay, who was principal in charge of the project, “The technology side was there; what was questioned was whether it would work from the people side. Meaning, you have certain people that are key to the show in a control room not on-site.” To ease the path for producers who may feel more comfortable being in the same physical space as the talent, a small “virtual” control room was installed on the concourse level, next to the newsroom and near the holding rooms for lighting and audio control, HVAC, and other elements.
There were a number of challenges for Wilson and Argibay, along with other participants like contractor Turner Interiors, to address in transforming the space into a studio. One was power: “The building had 1960s-style electricity,” says Wilson. “It would have been pushing things just to install a modern office with computers,” so the electrical system had to be supplemented. For backup, Argibay adds, “It was not a mission-critical location that needed to be up on generator, so it was determined what was needed was a UPS system, enough power supply to give them 15 minutes of air time with some key lighting in the studio.” As for HVAC, the studio was able to tie into Time-Life's chilled water plant, but independent air handlers had to be installed.
The most obvious problem with the existing space was a structural column in the studio “that couldn't have been more central if you put it in with a ruler,” says Wilson. After some hemming and hawing, CNN eventually decided the column had to come out, which was even more of a tall order than it sounds. “Normally, when you remove a column, you put in a beam to transfer the loads to the two other nearby columns,” says Wilson. “Well, those two other nearby columns go down three floors into the subway. We realized early on that it was not going to be practical to even analyze their capacity.”
The solution was a 68,000lb box-shaped steel girder system. “Just prior to removing the column, we put a girder on one side and a girder on the other and took the load out to two new columns that went down to other beams,” says Argibay. Below the studio, the girders carry the load to the remaining portion of the central column. The new columns were necessitated by the glass walls, which separated the girders from the building exterior. The architects wanted to preserve the Time-Life facade, especially since the 1958 Harrison, Abramovitz and Harris high-rise is in the process of being landmarked. “Meanwhile, this is a building that people are working in,” says Wilson. “Luckily, we had a very good structural engineer, Joe Lieber of Thornton-Tomasetti.”
Getting back to the subway three floors down: That, of course, raises a noise issue. “There was a lot of structural vibration, not of all which would have been audible, but it would have been disconcerting to the talent,” says Argibay. “So we put concrete floors in both studios to take care of the vibration.”
Noise filtering was one of several factors with the exterior glass — actually, two layers of glass, separated by a gap of several feet. (“What people don't realize is, the space between the two layers is as important as the glass for noise filtering,” says Wilson.) The outer glass was an existing feature of the building; the interior 10'×10', 3,000lb panes, made in Germany, are 2½" thick, and had a 16-week fabrication time. “We had barely 16 weeks to build the whole thing,” Wilson says. “So, we needed to purchase the glass before we completely designed the studio, and everything else had to adjust to it, because you don't trim this glass.”
Besides noise, the glass had to deal with light and heat filtering and, perhaps most crucially, security. “Every client that has one of these streetfront studios has to make a decision about the degree of protection they need for the talent,” says Wilson. “CNN wants a lot.” As for lighting, “You want a view of the outside, but you don't want the light of the outside.” The studio lighting, designed by Steven Brill of the Lighting Design Group, with systems designed and installed by Murphy Lighting Systems, is a customary tungsten package, so the inner glass is color-corrected with half-CTO. The two layers of glass and the cavity, along with the filtering material, also cuts down on the heat coming in, particularly on the studio's south-facing side.
Apart from the construction concerns, says Wilson, “There's a whole other issue: In the craze of doing these projects so fast, it's important to also make sure that they see the design opportunities.” Production Design Group, a leading set design firm for broadcast studios, was responsible for the American Morning interiors but, Wilson adds, “How do you treat the exterior surface of the studio? This is a marketing issue, because this place is a marketing location more hours a day than it's a studio.” It's the whole branding-content-in-place thing; CNN elected to do it with an LED news zipper inside the cavity and flatscreen TV monitors mounted on the exterior.
Among the many other participants in the project were acoustical consultant Alan Feierstein of Acoustilog, broadcast integrators Systems Group, studio lighting grid and rigging consultant Pook Diemont & Ohl Inc., and Showman Fabricators, who built the set. As for MDA, Wilson says, “Our clients turn to our firm because of our success in managing extremely complex projects on ridiculous schedules and very limited budgets.” The Time-Life Studios, which was just a glimmer in CNN's eye until construction began in fall 2001, certainly qualifies.