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Archived Weekly Features
This View by Nancy LeMay
Nancy LeMay is a five-time Emmy winning broadcast designer who has worked both in New York and LA, in network and local. She is a teacher and a painter as well. You can reach her through her website, and by email at

The Art of Spin

Time Magazine's annual "Year in Review" section, (the back-of-the-book to the Persons of the Year of 2002) always devotes some space to trends in the media. This year, we should note with some interest, Time puts a hook into one of its' own media partners, CNN. Talking about "Prime Time and the Fear Factor", Time observes: "...Stories of random shootings and disappeared and murdered girls were everywhere, from the increasingly graphic, grisly prime-time franchises of CSI and Law and Order to the orange DANGER!-DANGER!-DANGER! graphics of Connie Chung Tonight and the rest of its cable-news cohort."

It is unusual to read any comments in the mainstream media about graphics, especially news graphics, and regular readers of this space know that design for TV is a bete noir topic for me. But Time got it concisely and precisely right; Connie Chung is often an alarming program to look at. The lower-thirds are yellow, black, white, red, and an orange that resembles Nehi soda-all of them 'gasp! Alert!' colors. Plastered with a highly condensed, italicized Futura font, the graphic identity of this show is about as reassuring as a roll of crime-scene tape. Of course, it isn't supposed to be reassuring, and that's the point. Connie Chung Tonight, along with countless hours of other news programming, is part of the Barbarians are at the gates! shout that has almost completely subjugated journalism on American TV.

It's important to understand how the visual blast became joined to the verbal one. It started about a decade ago, beginning at the local level and then spreading to the networks. Newsrooms began to cede control of their graphics departments to the ad men. Graphic designers, who used to answer the phone "News Graphics..." were now working in "Creative Services Departments." The journalists no longer had priority in the graphics suites-the promo guys had shouldered them out. They commandeered the most advanced artists, the most complex equipment, and the lion's share of the attention of the station's art directors.

When we consider the timing of this change, we recognize that the stations were adjusting to the new reality of the onslaught of cable TV. The industry was evolving; major markets that had for decades only 9 stations, then had 30, and then 300-and all this was happening at a pretty zippy pace. The folks who could interpret overnights had increasing responsibility to keep their stations or networks afloat, and they gathered the resources needed, resources that were commensurate with their new power. And so form began to triumph over content.

The message to journos, then, became clear: 'the artists don't work for you any more-they are busy with more important things'. The result is what you see on TV news now: pointlessly spinning, twirling, pulsing, flashing and dashing stuff like the FOX NEWS ALERT (not an alert at all but a simple, scheduled update), or the redesigned "Crossfire," which dumped it's simple black setting for a look so intense it practically melts the glass on my old Zenith.

The fact is, when everything is high impact, in short order nothing has any impact. At that point viewers, at some level of their consciousness, begin to tune things out-perhaps without really even being aware that we're doing it. Right now, when the news is examining issues of unprecedented importance, viewers could do without the distractions. 'Tuning out' is the real danger.