The excitement in watching live returns from the New Hampshire primary last night didn’t come from the results, as the victors were clear within about 30 seconds of the polls closing. Trump and Sanders won in blowouts, and while there’s a lot of Wednesday-morning quarterbacking about what it means for the Republicans to have a second-place Kasich, third-place Cruz, and grumpy-place Christie, ranking the runners-up isn’t exactly edge-of-your-seat stuff. No, the true excitement came from the visuals on TV: Each of the major cable news outlets had slightly different-colored location designs!
At least a couple of the talking-head channels made it out to New Hampshire for the primary, including MSNBC, seen above broadcasting its post-vote analysis from JD’s Tavern in Manchester. The network is committed to remaining the young and hip TV destination of choice (note the faded pants on reporter Steve Kornacki, who may as well be handing a pair of headphones towards the camera lens and telling us this Shins song will change our lives), so MSNBC tried to recreate the pleasing lighting of its studio within the confines of a Northeast watering hole. But the change of layout necessitated some alterations to transform the harsh brick and mortar background into the warm glow of a red, white, and blue (and purple) television newsroom.
Expending such effort to make a bar look like a TV studio would seem to defeat the purpose of leaving the studio in the first place, but MSNBC is loath to diverge from the familiar template. American TV news—especially the major cable news networks—have an uncannily similar design and color scheme, where “color scheme” is a euphemism for “Blue! Who likes blue? Everyone likes blue, right?” The usual layout of a TV newsroom set design, when it comes to color, means a preponderance of azure tones. News shows, for all their efforts to distinguish themselves, also stubbornly cling to a routine visual palette. You may suspect this is the product of a very focus-tested process, or maybe it’s simply the result of longstanding groupthink. According to Dak Dillon, editor of the trade publication NewsCastStudio, the answer is “yes” on both counts.
“They all use the same two designers to build the sets, who make all the stuff at the national level,” Dillon says. “The same designers, the same materials, styling.” And before you consider the ramifications of that, please know, it’s far more Shakespearean than such a simple explanation would indicate. “In the mid-’90s, there was one production design company…then the designers split up, and at that point they became two companies,” he explains. That original outfit, Production Design Group (now Jack Morton PDG), was founded by Jim Fenhagen but lost its co-founder Erik Ulfers in 2006, who then started rival company Clickspring Design. The two guys who used to work together are now competing for every job. It’s not quite Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin fighting Isabelle Huppert in I Heart Huckabees, but it’s not far. This ingrained duopoly is a circular thing, Dillon reports, where all the networks keep going back to them. “It’s just, these guys have been in it the longest time and have all the connections.” If you’re NBC, and you need a new set, you call the people who did the last half-dozen jobs.
Most of these sets have backlit LED panels, meaning they can ostensibly be any color the producers choose. And since the same couple of studios are used for many different shows on a network, that’s exactly what happens. In the mornings, as Dillon points out, you’ll see a lot more orange, or red, or green. “If you watch Mornings With Maria on Fox Business News, they have this faux-wood that they put up on monitor, and they recolor it to be lighter. Or The Today Show, which for a long time had this white set…what they call softer colors.”
But the two set design companies doing all the work also take their cues from long-established focus group work. There are consultants for every corner of the TV business, and set design is no different—research has revealed what supposedly “works,” and that’s a large part of why those same design tactics keep repeating themselves. The key finding: Blue! A couple of factors play into the focus-group data that points to the magic of blue. First, there’s simple mechanics: most people now have HDTVs, but they’ve all purchased different makes and models, and those TVs’ color tone will all be adjusted differently. Blue, it turns out, is one of those rare colors that, to quote Dillon, “doesn’t fuck up as easy.” So every monitor may show it in a slightly altered hue, but it will generally be well-represented. Green and yellow, by contrast, are more apt to go astray. (Orange isn’t too bad—just ask the Today set.) Also, with a blue backdrop, the on-air talent can wear just about any color without fear of clashing.
But yes, the preference for blue is also a self-perpetuating belief: The established pattern of what’s worked in the past continued to fuel producers’ assumptions of how Americans expect their televised newsrooms to look. Turn your gaze outside the United States—to the BBC or Arabic networks—and you’ll see an abundance of bright greens, oranges, and purples. But Americans rely on blue. Like a British narrator in a documentary, we find it reassuring, authoritative. It’s a color that can be “both urgent and laid-back for on-air,” as Dillon describes it. Look at the way that blue suffuses CNN’s normal studio. Even as the network splashes the screen with red for the special event, blue remains the dominant tone.
And those reds are purposefully chosen, too. It’s not just a tribute to the good old red, white, and blue—it’s another heavily tested color that has an appeal of its own. “Blue is a positive color for men, signaling authority and control,” advises an article from the book Winning Elections: Political Campaign Management, Strategy & Tactics. “But it’s a negative color for women, who perceive it as distant, cold and aloof. Red is a warm, sentimental color for women—and a sign of danger or anger to men. If you use the wrong colors to the wrong audience, you’re sending a mixed message.” With this knowledge in hand, the networks employ both colors but err on the side of blue as the primary hue, because it’s surely better to seem aloof when you’re delivering the news than it is to seem angry. You want both colors, but mainly, you want to seem in charge. (There’s a whole other argument about the use of red in graphics, but that’s for a later time.)
TV pundits pilloried Marco Rubio for robotically repeating his talking points in Saturday’s Republican debate, but the networks themselves show their own slavish dedication to staying on message—aesthetically, at least. Fox News won the prize Tuesday night for both the most calmly reassuring yet blatantly artificial setup. Reporting from Saint Anselm College in Manchester, Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier spent their time in front of a roaring non-fire, presumably crackling merrily for verisimilitude, as a foley artist worked tirelessly behind the scenes. But lest viewers get the wrong idea from all this fake warmth, the Fox set designers drenched the surroundings in blue light, restoring a sense of authority to the anchors’ compulsive parroting of the word “huge.”
While Rachel Maddow held down the home base and its White House green-screen backdrop, the JD’s Tavern lighting ended up an unsettling mishmash of blues and reds, fusing into a hazy purple that came across more unholy than soothing, like MSNBC was transmitting from Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge. If you normally find Chris Matthews off-putting, placing him in the visual equivalent of Studio 54 on discount condoms night doesn’t help. But watching each of the networks adapt their color schemes for primary night—whether they were in their normal studios or camping out somewhere in New Hampshire—was an exercise in seeing well-oiled establishment media machines step out on the town, in a way meant to be both reassuring and relatable. Presumably, MSNBC thought nothing was more relatable than talking politics somewhere most Americans go to get drunk. And let’s not discount the possibility that the pundits were imbibing too, as the above clip of Chris Hayes referring to Bernie Sanders as “Bernie Sandwiches” can attest.
Within these mildly altered color schemes, the cable news outlets did their best to start crafting the new post-New Hampshire narrative. This largely involved predicting doom for the Christie campaign, demotion for Rubio, and a bemused “It thinks it’s people!” assessment of John Kasich’s second-place finish. The anticlimax of the top-line results made the bold breaking-news color schemes feel out of place. Red, remember, tends to signify danger and anger (to men, at least). But that doesn’t quite jibe with Fox News draping an all-important crimson “ALERT” on Jeb Bush as he relayed an anecdote about a microbrewery. The Bush ALERT was so important that Fox gave it an entire 24 seconds of airtime—maybe the saddest 24 seconds of fame Bush could hope for—before cutting away to Trump’s victory speech. It would be enough to make poor Jeb feel blue, if he weren’t already seeing red.