Overuse of TV-screen crawlers creepy

I blame it on the crawler.

You know – the news ticker, the continuous stream of headlines and quotes that travels across the bottom of your TV screen as you watch the news or talk and commentary shows. It used to be just one line of moving text updating a breaking event, but it’s grown into a veritable three-ring circus of its own. And I hate it.

I’ve ranted about it before, but previously because of how it blocks portions of news footage of, say, houses being swept away in a flood, and because it creates a too-busy-for-older-eyes viewing field. But the topic requires revisiting because I’m now convinced it is turning us collectively into Chicken Little.

The crawler has morphed into a gargoyle that creates in us a never-ending sense of crisis. In the recent coverage of the death by overdose of actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, which included interruption of regular programming, the continuously sensational crawls (“syringe found in arm,” “history of drug abuse”) blew this death into something seemingly bigger, something ominous, something that we need to be up-to-the-minute on or … what?

I’m sorry this talented man died. And it’s true that there are celebrities who die young through overdoses. And if you want to talk about how celebrity can impact addiction issues, that’s a good discussion to have. But I argue that to hyperfocus on this – or any of the other pseudo news-of-import subjects we’re bombarded with – only serves to keep us agitated and alarmed, not necessarily informed.

These crawlers or tickers or slides used to be used judiciously and for specific purposes. In the 1980s you began seeing regular use of tickers for school closures during bad weather events. Financial news programs began using them to highlight stock prices. Sports shows would have baseball and other scores running across footage of games played that day. Fine.

But now they’re everywhere all the time. Another good discussion now ongoing is over how things have changed newswise courtesy of the 24-hour news day, how the media beast needs to be fed all day and all night so every little thing becomes news, elevating small notes and gossip and trivia and what used to be termed soft features into page one stories. My 2 cents in the discussion is that this kind of coverage creates a false sense of significance.

Nothing makes this sense of impending peril worse than the crawler. It has become the frame around which programming needs to fit. Usually at the top of the screen will be the name of whatever program is being viewed, including of course the logo and some sort of sparkling element or changing color graphic. At the bottom of the screen will be a series of crawls. Sometimes there’s a static quote that changes out after a few seconds, under which is another moving scroll of text. Sometimes there are two lines of text, each moving at different speeds. Sometimes there are viewer reactions included.

What all these busy elements scream at us is “this is really important stuff.” And I suggest that while it might be important stuff to know overall or eventually, the immediacy of knowing it is usually in no way proportional to the intensity in which it is thrust before us. I mean, how vital is it to know instantly and in news bulletin fashion just how many glassine packets of powdery substances were found in poor Mr. Hoffman’s apartment?

The crawler technology really came into its own during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when there was so much happening so fast that there was no real way to get it all on the screen at the same time. That kind of event was perfect for continuous use of the crawler, even multiple crawlers. However it occurs to me that even for those horrific attacks the need for the 24-hour-a-day crawler faded after a few weeks – yet it never went away.

I’m pretty sure the networks and cable channels have determined that crawlers and scrolls and viewer responses and logos continuously all over the screen are good marketing, branding, advertising and interactive tools. But I don’t think such all-the-time use is very good for us.

Not everything is a four-alarm crisis, and when we treat everything as if it were, then it’s quite understandable why we’re continuously stressed and alarmed. We’re nervous enough without it.

The sky is falling, the sky is falling. Like Chicken Little, I’m not so sure we can recognize any more when it truly is.

Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@ comcast.net.

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