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"Spraying the TV Screen"

March 27, 2001

Satire by
Lauren Weinstein


Greetings. I was recently watching some videotapes of an old 60's science-fiction program that were recorded in the early 90's, back when they aired on a major cable network. Mercifully, they had not yet succumbed to the dreaded "tape rot" and were still viewable. The shows (the original "The Outer Limits") are still great, but I noticed something peculiar while watching. Something bothered me--something was missing.

Ah hah! There was no obnoxious channel ID logo stuck on the lower-right corner of the screen! I was seeing the entire screen area without what the TV industry appropriately calls "bugs"--the semi-permanent blots that seem to be eating up ever more of the viewable surface.

Who the blazes thought up those things in the first place? After some queries, I found myself talking to Mr. Rich Knot, a television consultant who claims to have invented the concept back in the 90's.

"Rich, I can't tell you how much I hate TV identification bugs. Many of them are not only distracting, but actually block material that I'm trying to see or read on the screen," I said.

"Lauren, I realized long ago that broadcasters weren't making full use of their energized transmission properties to fully encompass the commercial establishment of participatory monetary-exchange realizations," said Rich.

"Huh?" I asked.

"Let me put it another way -- TV stations were wasting commercial opportunities where they could be selling more stuff," said Rich. "Bugs are but the first step towards the brave new world of converting the real estate of the TV screen into a 100% capable mean, lean, selling machine."

"So the trend is more and more promotional-bug material burning its way into our screens all the time?"

"Definitely," replied Rich. "Except during actual commercials of course. You normally want to drop your bugs during commercials. After all, advertisers are paying for the time -- they're not freeloaders like the viewers."

"The only places left without practically full-time bugs seem to be some movie channels and various premium pay channels," I said.

"Yes, that's true. There's been a bit of resistance to keeping the bugs up throughout the films on classic movie and pay channels, but I think we're making inroads into convincing them that they should get with the program and keep those bugs up continuously. After all, they might help to discourage home taping, though admittedly the new digital VCRs will be effective at snuffing out most of that uneconomic practice, thanks to the digital copy protection regulations we're working to ram through!"

"How did all this get started?"

"I believe that CNN was the first with essentially continuous bugs during programming, starting some years back," said Rich. "Their ostensible reason for keeping an ID up all the time was probably to prevent other broadcasters from hijacking their stories. But of course, all another outlet needed to do was splat their own bug over the CNN one, so it wasn't really effective for that purpose. However, after the promotional possibilities became clear, bugs took off like gangbusters everywhere!"

"I've noticed that bugs have been getting increasingly difficult to ignore lately," I said. "They're getting bigger, animated, completely opaque, and some of them are even at the top of the screen where they block more of the main programming! They're getting to be a serious distraction. I find myself quickly turning off channels with the most obnoxious bugs."

"What are you Lauren, some sort of Luddite? Yes, thanks to digital technology, we've made great strides in evolving bugs towards being what I like to call "primary programming elements" -- but you ain't seen nothing yet!"

"I probably shouldn't ask, but what's coming next?"

"Well, first of all, we're moving rapidly beyond the world of ordinary bugs into broader multi-use programming philosophies. You've probably seen the broadcasters that combine promotional messages with bugs that spin-in when you come back from commercials, and on some channels we're even flying-in promos during the programming itself -- the viewers are stuck with them! But my real pride and joy is what I call the 'squeezeroo' effect."

"What's that?"

"It's simply wonderful is what it is. During the ending portion of a movie, when the credits and ending music that nobody cares about are running, we digitally squeeze the image down into a tiny little box that turns into a microscopic blur of lettering, cut off the film audio, then use the main part of the screen to run a sequence of loud and completely unrelated promos! We can even slow the tiny credits way down so that we'll have enough time to run all our ads before the actual film ends. Then about two seconds before the credits run out, we restore the screen to normal, the movie is finished, and we go to ... commercials!"

"I've seen that effect. I have to give you credit, it's certainly attention-grabbing, in a putrid, septic tank sort of way. Don't the film unions and guilds here in L.A. get a bit peeved at their credits being mangled?"

"Who cares about them?" said Rich. "They're not paying the bills. With luck, we can replace them all with cheap 'reality' programs anyway."

"Rich, I must say that you certainly seem to have all the bases covered."

"Yeah? Well wait until you see some of the other goodies we have planned. You know how letterboxed movies work, where there are black bars on the top and bottom of the screen to preserve more of the films' original aspect ratio?"

"Of course," I replied.

"Well, we're working on a plan now to sell commercials to run in those bars, just like Internet banner ads!"

"Genuinely devious," I said.

"Thanks. And if HDTV ever gets off the ground, the sky is the limit. And think of what we can do with interactive television systems! My God, it'll be heaven."

"Hmmm. Well, Rich, it's been a muted pleasure talking to you. I hope none of my questions seemed insensitive to your work."

"Not at all, Lauren -- you didn't bug me one bit."

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Lauren Weinstein

For information about the author, please see: http://www.vortex.com/lauren

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