Animation courtesy of Colossus, Inc.
On today's TV screens, the station-identification logo sits tethered to the surface, like an annoying rash that won't quite disappear. You think you've kicked it when WHAMMMO there it is again, blemishing the patina of an otherwise perfectly good viewing experience. Once a translucent image that surfaced only intermittently, today's screen logo has become a monstrous exaggeration of its former self. While this speaks poorly for broadcasters, it represents an even greater shame for designers, many of whom would like to think they can rescue their clients from making appallingly bad choices, like displaying large, pulsating logos in the corner of a television monitor.
Is there no better way to promote the mothership?
The technical term is DOG, for digital on-screen (or originated) graphics, and we've all seen them: touting the next program in the line-up when you've barely begun watching something else, your eye jumps from the main action as the marginal encroachment of the logo referred to in certain circles as an "obnoxicon" performs its little dance, which, frankly, is anything but marginal. (Here is the US, some of these logo dances have begun to include sound, producing a horrifying little moment of audio confusion that even John Cage would be hard pressed to enjoy.) Plasma screen TV manufacturers warn consumers of warranty limitations in the event of "screen burn" literally, an unfortunate casualty wherein the logo becomes permamently "burned" into the screen as a consequence of the TV being left on the same station for too long.
Sadly, the profusion of animated logos seems unlikely to abate any time soon. They might as well go ahead and implant the logo right on your brain.
In an effort to retaliate, some viewers opposed to these corporate (and graphic) interventions have formed grass-roots posses hoping to take on the broadcasting heavyweights with a kind of critical mass. Watchdog groups like Squash the TV Bugs
in the US and Logo-Free TV
in Britain have been moderately successful in raising public awareness, writing manifesti and sharing useful links
with their equally annoyed brethren yet in spite of such admirable intentions, there remains an air of inevitable despair about it all. Will the TV bugs continue to grow in size, noise and frequency, until we all succumb to a state of passive acceptance? Can TV bugs ever be restricted, minimized, abolished altogether? (TiVO, where are you?) Late-night TV host Conan O'Brien offered his own remedy not long ago: reaching for a can of insecticide during his show one night, he sprayed the famous NBC peacock,
whereupon it dissolved and dripped right off the screen.
Comedy aside, it does not look like the protest, noble as it is, is doing much to reverse the infestation.
In the early years, the concept of screen-based tagging
did not seem quite so menacing. There was even a kind of visual delight to the subtlety with which it revealed itself: like a watermark, it offered a momentary glimpse of sponsorship, a reminder of its point of origin, its corporate provenance. (Number Seventeen principal Bonnie Siegler introduced this practice when she was creative director in the early years at VH1, so that viewers knew it wasn't MTV.) But lately, it's all gone haywire: it's devolved to, in the words of one detractor,
"a muddle of irremovable graphic garbage, ammounting to the worst kind of interference imaginable." TV Bugs have become their own horrifying visual idiom: graphic lunacy.
Naturally, one can easily imagine broadcasters believing in the power of this sort of insistent PR, but can there be anyone who really wants to see a miniature football careen across the screen during a news broadcast? (I swear this happened to me a week before The Super Bowl.) And it gets worse. On ESPN2, they routinely shrink the main action in order to feature a constantly updated score ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screen. And while there's perhaps a distinction to be made between TV Logos (reminding you where you are) and TV Promos (upstaging the main event), they both spell trouble.
It's an essential design problem: how to mediate the relationship betweeen the primary message (what you're watching) and the secondary, or even tertiary message? (What you'll watch next, or tomorrow, or next week on this same channel.) On CNN,
it's mildly distracting to see a news feed slide across the bottom of the screen while watching the anchor delivering the headlines, but in this instance, at least, it's all news.
Many of us have observed the degree to which TV screens have come to adopt the organizational conceits of certain websites, and, as television becomes more interactive, this is perhaps unavoidable. But in television journalism, it's all part of the same genre, and besides, it's all live:
what's so objectionable about TV bugs is that they're primed to interfere, because they're sharing valuable screen real estate with a hermetically sealed, completely independent piece of programming. It's a collision of content and content, of form and form: it's like watching scenes from two different plays on a single stage.
There is an episode of The Simpsons
in which Homer becomes so infuriated with the FOX-TV logo in the corner of his screen that he reaches out, grabs the logo and stomps on it. Sadly, for the rest of us, this is not an option. Meanwhile, as viewers grow more impatient and broadcasters more insistent, the stalemate persists. Bring on the fictional insecticide, I say. Or at the very least, better design solutions.