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A SPLITTING HEADACHE

Jul 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Split-screen used to be a legitimate, if distracting, storytelling device in fictional TV and fictional cinema and nonfiction TV, and a visual convenience: Debaters who might actually be worlds apart, geographically as well as philosophically, could now appear face to face. Unfortunately, things got out of hand somewhere along the line. Now it is very difficult, as you surf the messy spectrum, to find a screen unsplit. The unsplit screen is an endangered species, and no, it’s not a good thing.
Splitting it doesn’t mean cutting it in half, it means dividing it up in any way. It wasn’t so long ago that TV critics regularly fielded letters from viewers angry that the networks were burning logos into the lower right-hand corner of the screen. That’s yesterday’s complaint. Now the trend is to take to the screen approximately the way Joan Crawford took to murder victims with her widdle hatchet in “Homicidal.” The reigning wisdom is divide it and conquer. Let no network keep joined together what it can electronically split asunder.
The contest is who can make the most mincemeat of the picture, usually in the name of promotion. No matter what a viewer is watching, you’ve got to remind him of what’s coming up next, and after that, and a week from Tuesday. MTV will superimpose promotions for its vidiotic “Video Awards” special for three solid weeks before the event. With extreme contempt for the intelligence (if any) of its viewers, the hip music network pelts them with animated visuals that can pop up at any moment and taint any quadrant of the screen. These things flash on and off for hours, like neon signs on Broadway-except the proper analogy would be a neon sign that was brought into a theater and placed on the stage to flash in the audience’s face during the entire performance of a play.
Apparently people will become accustomed to, and adjust to, any new intrusion on the once-sacred frame. In the earliest days of TV, splitting the screen was no technical snap. CBS couldn’t easily put an eye in the corner during “Sgt. Bilko” or “Playhouse 90” even if network executives had been uncouth enough to suggest it. Those were the days of “We pause now for station identification.” No more pausing. Now it’s simultaneous.
TNN, “The First Network For Men,” as it now usually says in the lower right-hand corner of the screen, apparently hasn’t been able to completely unfurl its promotional and branding crapparatus because of the Spike Lee suit that contested the channel’s name change to “Spike TV.” With that case settled, stand back for a blitz, because already, even without the new logo, the network has been systematically trashing the screen during James Bond movies and all other programming. Just as you might actually be getting involved in a scene or exchange of dialogue (God forbid!), the lower third of the screen will be given over to an asinine animated ad for one of the network’s new low-minded sleaze shows-“Stripperella” or “Ren & Stimpy” or Kelsey Grammer’s pitifully lame cartoon “Gary the Rat.”
At night, TNN is not just “the first network for men” (uh, what about ESPN?) but also the first network to feature a variation on “the F-word” as part of a repeated corporate slogan, a slogan so dirty we won’t repeat it here. Besides, the Spike Lee thing gave TNN enough free publicity to last a year, even as network executives were boo-hooing it up in the press about losing millions of dollars. Didn’t your heart go out to them?
Splitting up the screen into various components, a la Bloomberg TV, makes sense on a strictly utilitarian channel, especially in the meta-data world of today. You and I may hate the crawls at the bottom on CNN, but viewers have accepted and apparently even like them. But this is practical, informational television. The galling screen-splitting occurs on shows that aspire to be entertainment and mucks up dramas and comedies with distractions that critically reduce the program’s screen space. Now that space has to be shared with whatever gee-whiz gimmicks the promo department has been able to dream up. Those people must get paid according to how much their brainstorms irritate and insult the viewer, who now not only has to search the channels for a decent program or movie but then has to search the screen to find it once the channel is locked in.
TV Land uses a relatively restrained graphic in the last act of a sitcom to tell you which sitcom is next and which follows that. It’s annoying but simple. But something so static as mere print is considered old-hat. Now the promos, graphics, even station logos have to be animated. They have to flip or flop, twist or turn, jump or leap, blink or twinkle or, better yet, do all those things. Even so-called “classy” networks like BBC America, Bravo, Discovery and A&E sadistically tickle your eyeballs with dancing logos and promos. They don’t have to dance to be intrusive, of course; watching a dark movie like “Alien” on the Sci Fi Channel is made virtually impossible by the blinding brightness of the network logo that sits there staring you down.
Television is so cannibalistic a medium that it disrespects even itself. Ever-increasing competition leads to ever-debasing assaults on program content. It’s as if they resent having to show you a program because it interferes with the promos in the lower or upper or left or right part of the screen (eventually, of course, they’ll use the center too). The show you tune in to watch is viewed by the network airing it as a mere background for advertising. Programs interrupt commercials now; it used to be the other way around.
With the right formula, you can now pretty much ban pop-ups on your computer screen. Viewers need the equivalent for TV. Until then, the best way to dodge TV’s pop-ups is to tune out, which is just what irritated viewers might do-especially when the industry norm is wretched excess.