September 26, 2007
The "Cluttered" TV Screen in the Context of Screen History

A recent article in the New York Times reports on the concern about snipes, bugs, and crawls that increasingly appear on TV screens and the degree to which they compete for attention with "primary" content

At stake is the industry's effort to shape the expectations of viewers and to test their tolerance of multiple areas of content on a single screen. At what point does promotion become distraction, and at what point does distraction generate backlash? How many different points of content can exist comfortably on the same screen? How effective is multiple layers of content in generating attention?

A historical consideration of screen entertainment can help sort out some of the issues at stake. As this article emphasizes, the first and most obvious comparison of the cluttered TV screen is to a newer medium, that of the computer. This implies, of course, that TV is attempting, perhaps a bit desperately and clumsily, to catch up to a newer and slicker way to display content on a screen. However a more productive comparison might be to older media, especially those that thrived before the dominance of the screen.

Multiple layers of information and entertainment has been common to many forms of popular culture, especially in areas like variety shows, fairs, and circuses, where audiences had a choice of giving their attention in several different directions. Many kinds of content were on display simultaneously, and the audience had an ability to roam with their eyes or even their entire body to various attractions. When cinema gained cultural and commercial dominance in the early part of the 20th century, the rather limited physical area of a rectangular screen became, in a sense, the "default" means of displaying entertainment and information to mass audiences.

Later, the emergence of television and computers simply shrunk the size of the screen. The nature of the screen in this "default" mode tends to limit the display of entertainment to one item at a time--all attention focused on that flat rectangle rather than an entire stage, hall, or arena in which multiple activities might take place. Even as editing techniques and other technological developments began to increase the number of images potentially displayed, images remained locked in that screen, almost always displayed consecutively rather than simultaneously (even on computer screens multiple windows tend to overlap rather than exist side by side, and the increasing use of the tab function on web browsers means that multiple windows no longer need exist on the screen at the same time).

The dominance of the flat rectangle with singular content has been such that relatively simple alternatives such as split or multiple screens have been relatively rare in film and television. Indeed, the crawl must be considered in an entirely different category than bugs or snipes, since in almost every case (one exception can be local TV stations giving weather alerts) they are given their own independent section of the screen, separate from the main content. Snipes and bugs, on the other hand, overlap and potentially block images in the main content and thus, I suspect, cause much more distraction and displeasure among viewers trained to focus on singular screen content.

In this sense, and considering the relatively rapid acceptance of the crawl, content providers may want to investigate alternatives such as multiple screens, screens within screens, or even consoles that themselves have multiple areas of display (where is it written that a television or computer must have only one screen?). It appears that the tension is not whether this "cluttering" is in itself a boon or a distraction, but whether the single screen is an adequate or appropriate venue for these multiple layers of content. The dominance of the singular screen has greatly stifled the ability of content to be provided in other ways.