As the Fall Season Arrives, TV Screens Get More Cluttered
Kyra Sedgwick, star of “The Closer” on TNT, walks under a police tape and scans the screen with her flashlight. And every time she does, she makes Gretchen Corbin, a technical writer in Berkeley, Calif., irate.
The promotional ads for “The Closer” run in the bottom right of the screen during other TNT programs — a graphic called a snipe. But for Ms. Corbin, who sometimes watches movies that have subtitles, the tiny images block the dialogue.
“Some ad just took over the entire bottom of the screen so I missed what the characters said to each other,” said Ms. Corbin, describing a recent experience. “And it’s TV, so you can’t rewind.”
Snipes are just the latest effort by network executives to cram promotions onto television screens in the age of channel surfing, ad skipping and screen-based multitasking. At first, viewers may feel a slight jolt of pleasure at the sight of a new visual effect, they say, but over time the intrusions contribute to the sense that the screen is far more cluttered — not just with ads, but with news crawls and other streams of information.
For better or worse, viewers say, the additions are making the experience of watching television more closely mirror the feeling of using a computer.
That may be so, network executives say, but the extra content is here to stay. The snipes — not to be confused with bugs, those network logos that pop up in screen corners during shows — are important enough to the beleaguered television industry that the networks plan to tolerate the backlash.
This fall ABC is introducing the “ABC Start Here” campaign, which consists of a series of icons in the lower right of the screen that direct viewers to related content in other media, like books, DVDs and Web sites. At the end of “Ugly Betty,” for instance, a shopping icon could direct viewers to places where they could buy Betty’s shoes, or an iTunes icon could invite them to that site to buy episodes of the show. The point, said Marla Provencio, an ABC executive vice president of marketing, is “to accommodate viewers’ multimedia, multichannel habits and still lead them back to ABC.”
ABC tested the icons in July and will introduce them gradually this fall to get viewers familiar with the shorthand. To minimize complaints, ABC will keep the icons and all similar visuals silent.
“We do not want to invade in the viewers’ space so much that we intrude on their experience,” said Ms. Provencio.
Promotional content on what the industry calls the “lower third” of the television screen is “the way of the world these days,” Ms. Provencio said. ABC, she said, tries to make sure that the embedded ads do not interrupt, say, “a dramatic moment on ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ ” but the network does want to remind people they are watching ABC.
Viewers say that snipes and bugs are degrading their experience of watching television. Even some performers seem to resent the assaults on their work’s integrity. At last week’s Emmy Awards, the comedian Lewis Black delivered a blow against screen clutter, yelling, “We don’t care about the next show. We’re watching this show.”
Network executives say that the trend toward busy screens is an attempt to cater to the tastes and habits of younger viewers, who reflexively toggle among screens, online and on cellphones.
David Grazian, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, said that television is simply borrowing a successful feature from the video game industry. “Screen clutter can be extremely eye catching, especially for the viewer who surfs between several channels,” he said.
Viewers of MTV, VH1 and sports channels have come to expect frenetic programming. At ESPN, there has been a conscious effort to pump up the visual excitement of the viewing experience, said Norby Williamson, executive vice president of programming. “The key word in television these days is engagement,” he said.
The network first introduced a crawling banner of sports scores to the bottom of the screen in 1985, has recently introduced more aggressive visuals, such as a Monday Night Football score box in the center of the screen that changes into other bugs and banners. Today’s viewers today are conditioned to have a lot going on at once, Mr. Williamson said, adding, “Everything is shifting. Television has to shift, too.”
Sports commentators have always promoted their networks during broadcasts, but now they have extra reminders. Last month during CBS’s broadcast of the United States Open semifinals between Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anna Chakvetadze, a mini-trailer for “Survivor: China” ran on the bottom of the screen. Mary Carillo, who was providing commentary, promptly observed that Ms. Kuznetsova would likely “survive” the match (and she did).
The trend toward visual clutter has also reshaped television news broadcasts, where the familiar sight of a lone anchor talking to a camera has grown increasingly rare.
On CNN, the hyperactive pace of Wolf Blitzer’s nightly news show “The Situation Room” is so extreme that it was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” With one glance at the screen, is it really possible to absorb the United States military strategy in Iraq, or that a thunderstorm is moving over the Midwest, the Standard & Poor’s index is up 16.95 points, and Sean Combs has separated from his girlfriend? “Our pixel footprint can get way out of control,” acknowledged Jonathan Klein, the president of CNN U.S., referring to the television industry in general.
Research suggests that packed screens can impede comprehension. Tom Grimes, a journalism professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, Tex., said that people who are looking for quick information like stock quotes or a weather update can handle a certain amount of clutter. But “if they’re trying to listen to a reporter describe a complicated series of events, it’s very difficult to absorb that information” with too great a visual barrage, he said.
With the Internet offering an increasingly sophisticated yet chaotic visual experience, television must decide how much it wants to mimic the computer, said Aslam Khader, vice president for marketing and strategy of Ensequence Inc., an interactive media company in Portland, Ore. “TV is having to reinvent itself,” he said.
The question remains how many self-promotions the networks can dish up without degrading the quality of their shows. Sherry Sklar, a writer in Phoenix, Ariz., said visual clutter on television “has gotten worse — more movement and more intrusive” in recent months.
During a drama, if a character from a different show suddenly walks across the bottom of the screen, “it’s a total disconnect and ruins your suspension of disbelief,” Ms. Sklar said, adding, “I mainly watch PBS and HBO, probably because they don’t do as much of this stuff.”