With all these crawls, I’m walking

Dec 10, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Have you heard? Yet more bad news: “Gunman kills six, wounds two during …” Yes, quite sad. Quite sad indeed that CNN didn’t complete that creepy crawl before it was time to cut away to a commercial. Who says television doesn’t require viewers to exercise imagination? Anyone who saw that aborted news flash was left to conjure most of the essential facts of the story on their own-who, what, when, where and all that sort of thing.
The hills may not be alive with the sound of music, but the screens are alive with the clutter of little crawlees, with the pitter-patter of prancing words that parade across their bottoms like ticker tape. It has suddenly been decided that it’s perfectly permissible and commercially canny to run news items, program promos, stay-tuned teases and, who knows, the recipe for mom’s apple pie, in TV’s new favorite piece of once-virginal real estate, the Crawl Space.
CNN probably deserves the blame for popularizing this nuisance posing as a public service, and now it’s spreading everywhere-closely followed in terms of anthrax-like contagiousness by a similar dubious technical wonder, the happy little animated logo, something that’s very big at MTV, Animal Planet and even at what should be a bastion of civility, the BBC America channel.
Wagging the dog
Attempts to watch BBC America’s “Funny Awards” last week were thwarted by frequent interruptions emanating from the lower right hand corner. An animated jack-in-the-box popped up to divulge the result of some dumb-ass cyberpoll or telephone survey: answers to such questions as which character in a BBC comedy series most merits a “makeover” and so on. It was a particularly infuriating intrusion during the periods when John Cleese was on the screen, or what was left of the screen, in scenes from his hilarious “Fawlty Towers.”
They might as well have had a cleaning woman walk into those scenes and shout out “yoo hoo” to her friends at home. Watching TV now is like peering at the picture through a jungle thicket.
What the creeping crawl and the pop-up promo have in common are sheer sacrilegious impertinence. They have violated the frame, invaded territory that should be left as pristine as possible.
For the love of selling
Those proverbial powers-that-be in television are trying to accomplish what one would think impossible: to make the picture irrelevant to television instead of its raison d’etre. It’s a little-OK, just a little-like slapping a copyright notice along the bottom of the Mona Lisa.
Right: Little TV fare could reasonably be termed Mona Lisan. But trashing up the screen with typographical and animated junk is a slap in the viewer’s face and a sign of intense disrespect for the medium itself. The crawl is by no means limited to news programs. A version of it now appears on CBS and other networks to promo the next show on the schedule, something long common on CBS’s antsy-pantsy corporate bedfellow MTV.
At MTV, executives want every square inch, every scanning line, every pixilated pixel of that screen to go to work for them-selling, selling, selling. Selling the next show or a show that’ll be on in three weeks (crawls promoting the MTV Video Music Awards do in fact begin three weeks prior to the event and interrupt virtually every program on the network). Or selling junk viewers can buy on the Web. Selling this, selling that, selling-hell, selling the idea of selling.
“Kill for the love of killing,” said the Osamalike villain of “Gunga Din.” (Oh, there’s that movie again.) At MTV, and all of Viacom really, it’s sell for the love of selling. Whatever you do, don’t let the viewer become involved in the program.
CBS and its partners in crime are validating one of the 6 million or 7 million pithy observations made by Jerry Seinfeld: Men don’t care what’s on TV; they care what else is on TV. But that was a joke. And women are the more advertiser-desirable part of the audience anyway. Must the third and fourth acts of “CSI” begin with on-screen blurbs telling us that “The Agency” is next? (Especially when “The Agency” sucks?)
Couldn’t we, the viewers, have a moment’s peace, a tiny little oasis from importuning that we like to think of as “a television program?” Bad enough that a one-hour show may now contain only 43 minutes of program material. Defacing that program material with more advertising is just rude.
Washington’s Fox affiliate, WTTG-TV, starts its early-evening reruns of “Seinfeld” about a minute early to get the jump on competition (and squeeze in more commercials). So the station took to running a crawl on the half-hour, during the show’s opening scene, to advise viewers they were tuned to “Seinfeld” on Channel 5; you can imagine how much confusion that cleared up for those who thought Jerry, Kramer, Elaine and George were the new McLaughlin Group.
Information overkill
But the crawl ran into the logo or the credits already on the screen, so now WTTG squeezes the “Seinfeld” image vertically into a smaller distorted rectangle so that “You’re watching `Seinfeld’ on Channel 5” can run with no distractions in the background-distractions such as the program itself.
When the news crawls began on CNN and Fox News Channel (and I think even E! is running entertainment-news crawls with vital new facts about Britney Spores and Justin Idiot), I assumed they were teasing stories we’d later get at full length. Nope. That’s it for most of them. We get the short-hand headline only.
I find it less informative than maddening, and I’m inclined to seek out another channel in hope of ascertaining a detail or two-like, say, where the bomb went off, how many died, who was responsible and so on. There are, after all, so many bombs.
Even if we concede that utilitarian, nuts-and-bolts service channels such as CNN are justified in using the crawls, the fact that the practice is spreading throughout broadcasting and cablecasting is truly lamentable. It’s the content equivalent of a degradation of the signal, adding an obstacle between the viewer and what the viewer wants and deserves to see. If there were a viewer’s bill of rights-and that will happen when pigs fly and birdies go oink oink oink-this would be near the top: the right to see what little remains of program content on television without any flora, fauna, filigree, froufrou, or folderol getting in the way.
Oh wait-this just in: Critic goes mad, attacks TV set with