Good Morning, Times Square! The ABC Times Square icon is reborn.

Louis M. Brill

It’s not the first time that our magazine reprints and translates articles by a well-known US journalist, consultant and expert on modern media-technology, Mr. Louis Brill. In this May issue, with the kind permission of the author, we reprint his article on modernization of the unique New-York ABC media façade in the Times Square.

The ABC Times Square Studios’ LED video display The ABC Times Square Studios’ LED video display

As a media façade, the ABC Times Square Studios’ LED video display is a sight to behold. Nine, curvilinear, horizontal, LED video ribbons undulate around the facade’s front. Home to ABC’s Good Morning America, the building presents what seems to be a gigantic TV screen that displays network news and upcoming program and entertainment previews. Actually, the display, the only LED sign in the world that’s integrally involved with a major-TV-network program, is trailblazing the future of media façade based “performance signage.”

Easily seen throughout Times Square, the LED video display broke ground as a media façade, a term that describes an LED video display that completely covers a building’s front cladding. Media façades now proliferate on Times Square to capitalize on the area’s advertising clout.

The ABC Times Square Studios’ LED video display The ABC Times Square Studios’ LED video display
Each morning, as Good Morning America begins its live broadcast, early-birds gather around the street side studio windows to watch the program
Photo credit: Ida Astute, ABC Inc.
The Rockettes were featured on Good Morning America as they performed their tap dance routines in front of the ABC TV studio building
Photo credit: Ida Astute, ABC Inc.

A precursor to media façades

Originally created in 1999 by its corporate parent, the Walt Disney Co., the ABC Times Square Studios’ LED spectacular is one of the area’s oldest such displays. Having beamed more than 70 000 hours of news and entertainment for eight years, the LED display has recently been updated by D3 (Rancho Cordova, CA), a full service LED video display firm that designs and fabricates high-definition LED video displays. D3 LED displays also appeared recently in several other Times Square sites, such as a display replacement for the Armed Forces Recruiting station, the exterior LED displays on M&Ms Retail World and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium.

Initially built by Multimedia LED (Rancho Cordova, CA), the integrated LED display was divided into nine, separate, horizontal, LED ribbons, each approximately 133 ft. long, that extended lengthwise across the building. The first seven, full-color ribbons boasted a 50 mm pixel pitch and formed a video ribbon screen across the front of the building. To enhance the display’s visual appeal, a Sony JumboTron video display was embedded within the bigger Multimedia LED display.

Below that, the text-feature band briefly summarized the story behind the video image. The lowest ribbon broadcast sports news, and the one above that broadcast news headlines. To facilitate the LED ribbon’s unique shape, NYC-based Landmark Signs built a curved, steel, interlocking frame that connected it to the building façade. Landmark built it in New Jersey, disassembled it and re-assembled it in Times Square.

ABC media façade LED ribbon mounting In a rare look from behind the ABC LED media façade
Landmark Signs placed an impact-proof tarp over the studio windows to protect them as it installed each LED ribbon’s new D3 modules
Photo credit: Jason Barak, D3
In a rare look from behind the LED façade, the individual LED modules, and their steel frame modules, can be seen
Photo credit: Quinn Meadows, D3

“Once the full marketing value of the ABC LED video display was understood by the Times Square advertising community, it became a springboard for many other LED video spectaculars [HSBC, Pontiac, Wrigley’s, LG, Samsung, etc.],” said George Pappas, a D3 founding partner who’s currently in charge of operations and manufacturing, and a former project manager of the original Multimedia project. Having witnessed the upgrading of other LED video displays, such as Coca-Cola (in 2005) and Budweiser (in 2007) and the addition of new, full color, high-definition LED video displays (Chevrolet, Pontiac and Prudential), the Disney Co. decided to upgrade the original ABC Times Square LED video display.

During the summer of 2007, to prepare the ABC building for the new LED video display, the original LED sign was stripped, one ribbon at a time, to its bare, steel frame. Having removed the original LED segments, Landmark retrofitted the new D3 LED modules (WS-10 units) onto the existing steel frame, from the bottom up, using the same LED module connection points that held the first LED display in place. At least 3,551 D3 LED modules, each 3.5 in. (8 pixels) wide x 3.25 ft. (100 pixels) tall, replaced the original LED display modules.

Reporting Live from Times Square

Reporting Live from Times Square Reporting Live from Times Square
Photo credit: ABC Inc.

Images that stream across the curvilinear ribbons of the ABC LED video display will distort unless software compensates for the curves. NYC-based Show & Tell Productions developed a state-of-the-art software system that controls image shape and acuity as it streams past each radius curve. The process continually morphs pixel spacing as the image passes through the curves. Essentially, the software accelerates or slows down the image flow, and stretches or tucks the content to accommodate the display’s radius curve.

D3’s Meric Adriansen said, “In the original system, the imagery was ‘pre-morphed’ with a plug-in Adobe filter, which allowed the creation of properly aligned images on its LED ribbon face. When we specified how the new sign would operate, we noted that, in order for live imagery to be placed on the LED ribbon surfaces, we needed real-time morphing capability. Show & Tell’s control system implemented this for ABC. Now, in the front-end system, all image content, live or pre-created, can be morphed in real time to create properly aligned, distortion-free imagery for everyone who sees the sign throughout Times Square.”

The building facade regularly serves as a bumper shot, as well as a backdrop for show and weather segments in the outdoor area in front of the studio. The ABC building façade has also been used as a background for ABC News and ESPN Sports shows. In 2007, the ABC display featured World Cup soccer matches, which attracted so many fans that they covered every inch of Times Square as they watched the soccer match.

An icon is re-installed

The unique LED sign design encompasses huge glass studio windows that separate the seven ribbons above and the two below. Tony Calvano, Landmark Signs’ principal, said replacing them entailed careful planning. “During our swap out and replacement of the ABC LED modules, we started at the bottom and worked our way upwards. By the third ribbon tier, we were above the studio windows, which meant we had to protect each studio window segment as we worked above it,” Calvano said.

To protect the windows from welding sparks and dropped debris, Landmark draped and rigged a fireproof, impact-resistant tarp across the windows, below where they were replacing each ribbon of the modules. Daily, the crew set the tarp under the workspace in the morning and removed it at the end of the day.

Because of its iconic presence, the original ABC sign operated while it was retrofitted. Selectively, each old LED ribbon was turned off as its new module was installed. Calvano said the project began with the most difficult part, the tight, curving, 3.5-ft.-radius corner of each ribbon: “The LED modules on the inside radius curve had to fit seamlessly. Then, by working from the radius outwards, we installed the rest of the ribbon, going north to the ribbon’s edge and then south to the other edge of the LED video display. As we moved from section to section, the tarp below followed us, covering that section of studio glass. Once we perfected the radius-curve insertion technique, we did this with the other eight ribbons. All together, we replaced the entire display in about two and a half months.”

The new LED media façade

The new ABC Times Square LED “SuperSign” The ABC Times Square Studios’ LED video display
The new ABC Times Square LED “SuperSign”
Photo credit: Ida Astute, ABC Inc.
The ABC Times Square Studios’ LED video display
Photo credit: ABC Inc.

The new ABC LED video display offers 25 times greater resolution than the original display. D3’s replacement LED display also includes:

  • 10 mm pitch, LED display resolution;
  • Brighter color and better color uniformity throughout the entire LED video display;
  • Data lines with a redundant gigabyte Ethernet network, which allows a simultaneous dual processor to run the same data signal twice in a parallel mode, as a backup feature;
  • Hot-swappable backup power supplies also run in parallel, which allows the backup power supply to immediately replace a failed, primary, power supply.

The new, high-resolution LED video display required new software, noted Meric Adriansen, a D3 managing partner who helped develop the original sign’s operation procedures. He initially served as a software project manager for Multimedia, which installed the ABC LED video display. He oversaw the development of the front-end content-management system, which included the software that controlled the graphics, video, animation and image morphing.

The original software for the first ABC LED video display ultimately became a patchwork of fixes that adapted the display to new software upgrades and imagery techniques. In the new D3 version of the ABC LED video display, additional control of the video image allows the LED ribbon screen to display a complete image on all nine ribbons, not just the upper six ribbon tiers, at the operator’s discretion; the bottom feature band and text ribbons can be added to show an even larger screen image on the building façade. A single TV program or event can be promoted on the smaller Mitsubishi insert screen, which accompanies the primary LED video ribbon. Below that, the feature band identifies the video content on the LED video displays, and two “zipper” ribbons show ABC News and ESPN sports headlines.

ABC’s Window on the World

The ABC Times Square Studios’ LED video display serves as a full partner in promoting the network and other business units of the Walt Disney Co. Jan Chaloner, vice president, ABC Network Print, said, “We use the building LED video display to market various ABC TV and synergy partners’ programming, including our television shows, sponsor content, and promotions for new TV programs and special TV shows. It’s also used as a backdrop for some of our live outdoor Times Square broadcast events. Even better, it marks the location of our broadcast center in Times Square and acts as a draw to attract people to the first-floor TV studio, where they can watch ABC News Good Morning America broadcast as it happens.” Talk about reality programming.

Street's reality show!

Content design and placement must also consider font selection and logo placement, plus the coordination of six or seven separate LED ribbons. Also, the LED ribbon bands and the Mitsubishi LED display can be used simultaneously to create a cohesive marketing, promotion or branding message that combines graphics, copy and video. Finally, existing, prerecorded television content (usually formatted in either 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratios) could be reformatted for the unusual aspect ratios of horizontal LED ribbons.

The ABC SuperSign shows off all nine LED ribbons as a video LED display ABC LED SuperSign prominently displayed sponsor promotions
The ABC SuperSign shows off all nine LED ribbons as a video LED display
Photo credit: ABC Inc.
On New Year’s Eve, the ABC LED SuperSign prominently displayed sponsor promotions
Photo credit: ABC Inc.

Show and tell

The ABC TV staff and NYC-based Show & Tell Productions share the LED video display’s daily operation. Show & Tell developed the integrated, show-control system for the original and new, ABC LED building façade. Phil Lenger, Show & Tell’s president, said, “We always provided a daily video and graphic playbook to help operate the ABC LED display. With the new LED video display in place, Show & Tell rewrote and upgraded the show-control system to handle all of the display’s new capabilities, including its high-resolution format, live broadcasting and, most importantly, a streamlined operation of the overall playbook system.”

The LED video display operation is now more compatible with such graphic software as Flash applications. Finally, the LED display can easily present live interviews from the street, which comes in handy for such special events as New Year’s Eve, parades and historic moments, and personal reactions to sportscasts. As Adriansen pointed out, the original Sony Jumbo Tron served as a “sideshow” to a smaller, but easier to view, insert screen. Now, these positions have flipped-flopped; the bigger LED video display now creates the most visual impact. “Our ABC LED ‘SuperSign’ is so big,” Chaloner said, “it engulfs your viewing experience as you look around Times Square.

“Because the ABC LED Super Sign is closer to the ground level, it’s thereby ‘closer’ to the pedestrians who view it. Other Times Square signs are hung off the sides of the surrounding skyscrapers, far above the pedestrians, giving the signs a more distant and less personal presence.”

Future spectaculars

ABC TV’s Times Square building is one of the pioneers of out-of-the box, LED video display design, which many other companies now use to represent themselves. Such examples include the latest Coca-Cola LED spectacular, the FUSE display, and the Enoshima Island Dragon Tower. These unique designs, along with conventional make-overs (such as Coca-Cola, Budweiser, etc.), have engendered a second generation of LED spectaculars along urban byways.

The curvilinear, ABC TV Studio LED video display has redefined a sign’s function for its client sponsor. Now, content providers are “sign casting,” or broadcasting visual communications via displays in urban spaces. Richard Paris, director of operations, ABC Television Network, said, “It’s our way of using the LED Super Sign to distribute specific news and entertainment content on a daily basis to the public passing by the studio building. As a result of this powerful emphasis, our LED Super Sign has a significant life of its own. We’ve been on the Super Bowl and Hollywood’s Academy Awards. The ABC Super Sign LED video display has been shown in more movies with a reference to Times Square (Spider Man, Vanilla Sky, Death to Smoochie, Enchanted, etc.) than we can even count.”

The ABC LED Super Sign, which integrates LED signage and TV programming, is a destination for Times Square tourists, who first see the sign on television. Now that’s the ultimate in signage, a display with its own television show.

What will happen next? Stay tuned...