CNN's Iowa Caucus coverage was so visually hyper, so jammed with conflicting graphics and people that the only thing missing was a flashing disclaimer that 'sustained viewing may cause discomfort and nausea.' The whole evening looked self-consciously high-tech as if the producers believe that content alone will not sustain viewer interest throughout the night.
The highlight of their ADHD converge was the tilting, gyrating, floating graphic that Anderson Cooper had to handle that actually blocked the first layer of experts on the set. And when that wasn't happening, the second layer of experts was seen over the shoulders of the first panel - sometimes paying attention but always pulling focus from the first panel. Poor Anderson Cooper. He's not having a good week. On New Years Eve, his stolid demeanor paired with put-down comic Kathy Griffiths was excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch. It's as if the show writers were on strike because nobody could do banalities for that long if they had actual writers available.
But back to CNN's Iowa coverage. Wolf Blitzer, the ring-master of this twenty-ring circus, got a nice aerobic work-out as producers had him moving along their always changing multi-screen set. One segment had Soledad O'Brien and Bill Schneider standing awkwardly next to each other, struggling with papers and looking desperately like they wanted a desk between them.
The on-screen graphics looked like image salad, crowded with conflicting and confusing focal points with graphics in the background moving one way while the bottom graphic crawled the other way. While viewers were trying to figure out where to look, all the numbers were in blue letters against a dishwater grey background which violates the first rule of TV graphics - make it pop out. What are these producers thinking? Here's a possible explanation. TV producers assume that mere physical movement creates excitement. The way to attract the much sought-after young, multi-tasking, fickle viewers is to give them as much visual stimulation possible in the belief they wont click away. That's why local TV news reporters like to walk-and-talk for their on-air pieces. That's why movie trailers are an assault of frantic quick-cut scenes.
But is this a correct assumption? Do younger viewers really need all that action to be able to follow a news story or a discussion? Do they really need the endlessly repeated B-Roll because producers think talking-head commentators are boring? Isn't it about hiring compelling talking heads in the first place? TV News programmers often say they're only giving viewers what they want. That's right up to a point. Broadcast news has always been a balance between delivering a service and a product. Life-style news, celebrity news, helpful stories that people want, and the personalities that deliver it all are necessary products that allow news organization to financially survive. But news is also an imperative service. It's about delivering stories that viewers don't even know they want, stories they NEED to know. It's about stories that are often unpleasant but necessary that separates news from being just another advertising platform. One of the mantras of journalists is that news should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But afflicting the comfortable does not mean visually assaulting viewers who are probably trying to relax, eat and watch news while trying to unwind after a busy day.