Cluttering up the view

Cluttering up the view

Visual presentation and new age graphics are key determinants of television channel identity and branding. Given the barrage of 24-hour news channels across the country, the presentation and layout of the screen space becomes particularly critical—both to provide information and to attract viewers.

In the past few years, television news channels have reformatted their screen presentations to include scrolling text, sports scores, stock prices, weather news and even advertisements. These visual elements are all designed to give viewers what they want when they want it. Hence, no matter which channel you turn to on television, you are likely to find visual elements that seems to clutter up the screen—making it difficult to focus on one thing.

It’s getting to the point where everything in TV news has an on-screen tag, and the packaging is so dense, one can hardly find the content. Heavy graphics with multiple colours, fonts, sizes, boxes and shapes are creating a new visual grammar on screen, sometimes even defying basic design principles. Logos and labels, scores and statistics, headlines and advertisements—the clutter is out of control.

An ongoing Centre for Media Studies study analysing the screen space on prime time bulletins of 70 news channels has found that, on an average, there are five points of information or elements. While the logo and the anchor are usually the stable, common elements, the other three are two moving scrolls, usually at the bottom of the screen and an additional box of information that is generally some score or promotion or even an advertisement. However, there are some screens that have almost 9 to 11 points of information at any given time.

The trend towards visual clutter has also reshaped television news broadcasts, where the sight of a lone anchor talking to a camera has grown increasingly rare. It’s one thing for specialized channels such as all-business and all-sports channels to run on-screen tickers: Their viewers often tune in just to check a particular stock or score. But the effect of adding multiple lines of ticker-style text to the typical news bulletin is that many viewers are simply unable to process it all.

Screen clutter can be extremely eye-catching, especially for the viewer who surfs several channels. However, research in the US suggests that packed screens can impede comprehension.

For people who are looking for quick information such as stock quotes or a weather update, a certain amount of clutter is comprehensible. But if a viewer is 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 onslaught.

The assumption of channels seems that most viewers can simultaneously read, listen and see on screen, various elements of information that are not always connected or interrelated. While some viewers may be comfortable with the crowding if the elements are all related to the same topic, most news bulletins have multiple, incongruent elements such as a stock ticker, sports scores, advertisements and headlines unrelated to the main topic—resulting in information overload.

Researchers know that when words appear on screen, most people read them. The “fixed" time and temperature bits may be easy to ignore, but that doesn’t hold true for story slugs, name IDs, advertising plates and local headlines that change throughout the newscast. Each new line of text is a potential distraction, pulling the viewer’s attention away from the substance of the newscast.

Audiences are required to see the news story, not read so much or try to decipher the on-screen clutter. They are forced to look,listen and read, all at the same time, unlike what happens with newspapers or radio. In the process, to catch up with news in a bulletin, viewers have to work that much harder to get the news.

That’s not the only reason graphics overload is so pernicious. A lot of graphics now in use are fundamentally misleading. Take the “breaking news" label that channels regularly slap on just about any story you can name. It may seem like a little thing—calling something breaking news when it’s several hours old—but it’s part of a detrimental pattern in many local newsrooms.

This involves telling viewers a story can be seen “only on their channel," when half the sound bites come from a news conference every other channel also covered, or touting a story as “new" when there’s not a single fresh development to report, not even an extra frame of video.

Obviously, more understanding and research is required to assess how often various viewer profiles fixate on graphics, visuals, anchor-reporter voices and advertisements. In this way, a channel can quantify the success of a given news bulletin in terms of actual attention and comprehension.

For example, what percentage of viewers read the lines of text at the bottom of the screen—either fixed or scrolling?

Which part of the news bulletin screen can be recalled?

To what extent can the wooing of floating viewers be attributed to the various elements or graphics on the screen?

Between seeing, hearing and reading, which attracts more viewers and also indulges their interests?

PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

Comments are welcome at