Tickers and bugs: Has TV gotten way too graphic?

If you find all those crawls, bugs and lower-third-of-the-screen promos to be really annoying, get past it. TV executives say they're here to stay.

And if you do find them annoying, it probably says something about you—like, you're old and cranky. Well, if not old, at least older, according to research conducted by Frank Magid Associates. The Magid research found that a majority of younger viewers find onscreen "enhancements" to be "very to somewhat appealing." It's the older crowd—ages 55-plus—that find such visuals least appealing.

But whether you love them or hate them, or just don't care, credit the computer age for bringing you what Magid's Jill Rosengard says is an increasingly "nonlinear television experience." It's TV as a Web page, which has always been about bombarding the Net surfer with as much information as possible packaged in boxes, columns and scrolls, she says.

And such on-screen visuals will get more complicated and more integrated with the TV viewing experience over time, television executives say. Michael Hirschorn, VH1 senior vice president, news and production, envisions a time when viewers may be able to manipulate the crawls and tickers once they have interactive capability.

AT&T Broadband President Bill Schleyer says TV screens will only get busier but viewers will be able to set up their own criteria for what they receive. "There will be more multitasking between the Web and TV."

Just two months ago, CNN's Headline News did a radical makeover of its on-screen look, fully embracing the cyberspace, nonlinear look. Its new screen is split into two sections, with video and headlines on top and weather, travel advisories and stock information on the bottom. The new look also features multiple anchors, who get camera time every 15 minutes. On Sept. 11, the network instituted a full-time crawl to keep up with news of the terrorist attacks.

Teya Ryan, executive vice president and general manager of CNN Headline News, says, "It's the right direction to go in. We're a society that is absorbing information in a way that we never imagined we would be doing. We have a whole new generation of news viewers that have been trained on the Internet that are used to that."

Much of this has been going on for a while. Bloomberg Television is widely credited with bringing the Web-site look to U.S. TV. Others say Canada's City TV did it first. TV networks (cable first, then broadcast) started adding logos—known affectionately in the trade as "bugs"—in the lower right corner of the screen a decade ago. Why? So viewers could find them, says Tim Brooks, head of research at Lifetime Television.

Brooks recalls doing research on the bug issue when USA Network first introduced its bug. Most of those surveyed "either didn't care or actually liked it," he said. "Their TV choices were getting so complicated, it helped them know where they were, literally."

Those viewing choices, of course, just keep expanding. In the past year, a passel of TV networks have begun to embed lower-third graphics in prime time shows to tell viewers both what they're watching and what's coming on next. Clearly, the graphics add to already cluttered screens, but TV executives say its another way of drawing attention to their shows. The four major broadcast networks now do it routinely in prime time. So do cable networks TBS and Discovery.

According to John Miller, president of The NBC Agency, the network's in-house advertising and promotion unit, the network began inserting those graphics this year at the request of its owned stations after Nielsen changed the way it credits viewing to local stations. Until last January, if a Nielsen diary holder reported watching West Wing
(an NBC show) on WABC-TV New York, that station would get the credit, not WNBC. Now the credit is given based on the show recorded.

But Miller acknowledges that it was just a matter of time before the network started overlaying promo graphics in the content of prime time shows. "Competitive pressures have forced us to be more aggressive in looking for every second to communicate some message to the consumer about our programming."

Fox took the technique a step further last week, when it used such graphics (in this case, animated R2D2 bugs) for several days to promote the Nov. 25 prime time airing of Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace, the blockbuster theatrical film. Fox officials say that was a first but it might be done again to promote special events.

The packaging of reams of statistics, baseball scores, stock prices and other market indicators has been offered on continuous crawls along the bottom of sports and business networks for years. In this age of multitasking, it's a handy way to watch the game and get an update on what's going on around the rest of the league at the same time. Or to watch an interview with a business tycoon, while keeping abreast of the stock market.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks took the use of crawls to a new level. Just about every major news network—with the exception of ABC News—launched a continuous crawl to spit out breaking-news developments as they occurred.

Al Ortiz, head of special-event coverage for CBS News, says the network used a crawl throughout much of the first post-Sept. 11 week. "We use headline banners to complement what's being said on the air," he says. "We do that so it won't be distracting or contradictory. I've seen quite a few cases on other outlets where the crawl contradicts what the anchor or reporter is saying. We go out of our way to make sure that it's consistent with what we're reporting on the air."

Which raises the issue that many news people have debated, aside from the potential annoyance factor: Can crawls be abused or otherwise used in a way that conflicts with good journalistic practices? You betcha, says the Poynter Institute's Jill Geisler. "Crawls are good journalism when they augment a program in progress with important news told in context. They are bad journalism when they are dated, incomplete, alarmist or misleading." By Geisler's definition, such gems as "One-eyed Woman Stabbed in Good Eye" would probably fall into the last category (believe it or not, that did indeed run in the crawl on one cable news net).

NBC News also used a crawl during much of that first post-Sept. 11 week to keep up with breaking developments, says Senior Vice President Bill Wheatley. "It's helpful in a major multidimensional story like that. The situation on an ordinary news day is far different."

ABC News was the lone holdout opting not to crawl stories or headlines after the attack, although the network's owned stations and affiliates were free to do so and frequently did. But at the network, after some internal debate, President David Westin ruled against using a crawl to update the story. "This story was way too complicated to tell in a crawl," says one ABC Newsie. But he also says that Westin believes that, with everybody else doing it, "it was a way to differentiate us from the competition" and a way to punctuate the network's mission to bring context to the news, not just urgency.

None of the Big Three broadcast networks use crawls during their evening newscasts or other regularly scheduled programs, executives say.

Cable news networks CNN, Headline News, MSNBC and Fox News Channel have continued their use. But in so doing, MSNBC and Fox also crossed a line—running the crawls during commercials—from which they had to retreat, at least in part due to complaints from advertisers who worried that the flurry of headlines was ruining their message.

Each of the cable news networks has handled crawls during commercial breaks differently. MSNBC ran them during commercials until Nov. 16, then stopped the practice. Fox News Channel continues to run crawls during commercials, though only in certain situations. And CNN and Headline News, responding to client sensitivity, have not run crawls during commercials.

"A lot of our advertisers were concerned and asked us if we were going to run the crawl, and we decided not to," says Greg D'Alba, executive vice president, sales and marketing, CNN. "We want to keep it an advertiser environment and not detract from the message. That's our approach right now."

Ad-agency executives like that kind of talk. "If you're talking about a crawl over the commercial, that is something I would clearly not be happy about," says Allen Banks, executive media director at Saatchi & Saatchi, New York. It's just one more distraction, he says. On the other hand, he adds, "the reality is, with what's going on in the world, having some of those crawls might actually bring attention to the commercial." Nevertheless, he believes, "in general, what television is doing is not particularly advertiser-friendly."

Chris Geraci, director of national TV for media buyer OMD, New York, agrees. "I just do not like the idea of a news crawl during commercials. It's distracting, and it takes away from the effectiveness of the message."

MSNBC's Mark O'Connor says the ticker was unobtrusive but some advertisers voiced concerns in recent weeks. "We would still go back to the crawl in the future depending on the situation," he adds.

Following the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 on Nov. 12, Fox News Channel ran crawls during commercials. However, a day later, the network returned to running commercials without the crawl. "We [run the crawl during commercials] when circumstances warrant, when there's tremendous breaking news," says Fox News' Irena Steffan.

On other types of information networks, the commercial crawl has been a less nettlesome issue. Even prior to Sept. 11 CNBC, CNNfn and Bloomberg News ran stock information during commercials. On Sept. 7, ESPN News rolled out a sports ticker that ran during commercials.

Advertisers have been happy with it, according to Ed Erhardt, president of sales and marketing for ESPN and ABC Sports. "We now have 50 advertisers on ESPN News, and that pretty much tells the tale. We brought a number of new advertisers into the fold, and we're in the middle of research that looks at attentiveness and how viewers are reacting to having the bottom-line crawl appear all the time."

He says some advertisers believe that their image and message should be the only one that the consumer absorbs during commercial time. "There are others who have a different view, and they want to be part of the content."

Given the current state of events, it appears unlikely that the crawl will be going away soon. It's also clear that the light-news days of around-the-clock reporting of Chandra Levy's disappearance would not be a very crawl-friendly environment. For now, though, the heavy-news cycle spawned by the terrorist attacks ensures plenty of daily grist for the news mill. "We did a fair amount of research as far as what viewers think about [the ticker], and it's all come back very positive," says O'Connor.

Crawls are even crawling onto entertainment networks. As the originator of Pop Up Video, VH1 is familiar with graphic overlays as visual centerpieces. The slightly mocking tone of Pop Up Video
has proved popular and has migrated beyond music videos to other types of programming, other networks (in a slightly altered form) and even to DVD (where the film Legally Blonde
can be watched with Pop Up Video-style information boxes.

VH1 also recently tackled the crawl, adding it to Jump Start, a morning program that serves up music and news. "We obviously saw all of the other tickers that were out there, and the news in general has been pretty grim," says VH1 Senior Vice President Michael Hirschorn. "So we decided to counter-program against the other tickers and do one that makes fun of tickers. From time to time, we'll make fun of CNN or MSNBC. We also have the only one that is in the first person."