American Identity 

31 December 2006 tbs.pm/2132

The on-screen tags or bugs we know today as Digitally Originated Graphics, or DOGs, first appeared in Europe and the Middle East in the 1970s as a means of ‘branding’ or watermarking the source of content so it remained obvious who the originator was, even if it was pirated. In 1991 VH-1 in the United States began to use one to distinguish itself from rival MTV. And that was just the start. It’s been a downhill slide ever since.

In the spirit of international broadcasting relations, I humbly apologise on behalf of the American television industry. We have contributed to the cock-ups British broadcasting has encountered in the last 20 years, and all because we Yanks have “exciting” new ideas when it comes to on-screen graphics. The networks here have been so obsessed with the idea of preserving brand identity that they have succeeded in stealing the identities of the local stations which carry them. It is a practice, I am sorry to report, that has led to the state of television you in the UK see today.

While on-screen logos had been used since the 1970s, by State-owned broadcasters in parts of Europe – especially in the Eastern bloc – and the Middle East, their spread into English-language programming started off in the early 1990s, when US music video channel VH-1 started using a symbol in the corner of the screen to distinguish it from rival MTV.

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NBC’s DOG (lower right of screen)

Then a translucent grey version of NBC’s famed peacock symbol appeared on screen for the first time. There was never a clear reason given for NBC’s reasoning behind the addition – some speculated it was to prevent people from tape-recording movies or concerts shown on the network and trying to sell them as genuine studio releases. Others guessed that it was an easier way for channel surfers to identify what network they were flipping past. Whatever the reason, one thing was certain – the Bug had landed. Within a year of NBC’s move, the other broadcast networks had added their logos to the corner of the screen as well.

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ABC’s DOG

Fox was the first network to experiment with on-screen textual continuity. As early as 1993, the fourth network would identify the programme currently airing upon return from a commercial, followed a few seconds by an “Up Next” reminder, in a text bar extending from a colourised version of the bug, before disappearing back to a translucent bug. The practice continued, and within a few years, all the other networks had jumped on board.

Also around this time, the networks came up with another distraction from television viewing: minimize those pesky credits that no one supposedly watches in order to squeeze in promotions for other shows. Until this point, a programme would return from commercial for the final time and roll the closing credits full-screen, usually superimposed over clips from the episode, end with production credits and the network symbol, and jump to the next programme. Usually the only network-made interruption would be a continuity announcer teasing upcoming shows over the theme music.

Around 1992 this process changed. A ‘sting’ of the network’s theme tune plays over the production credits, followed by a split-screen: the right-hand side plays the credits, now shrunk to about 1/5 their normal size, while the left side of the screen either displays the final joke of a sitcom or a video tease for an upcoming show.

Since the millennium, the networks have decided that bigger is better. The bugs have grown slightly larger and slightly darker, while continuity promotions can now take up the lower third of the entire screen. Animations have become en regle for promoting shows, lasting 10 seconds or longer a throw. NBC touted the premiere of their sci-fi series Heroes during the season premiere of Deal or No Deal: “Heroes premieres in 44 minutes!” … “36 minutes!” … “25 minutes,” etc. And as high-definition widescreen presentation has now spread to America, the credits have moved to the lower-third, just as fast, and illegible as ever.

Who was responsible for the homogenising of the ITV regions you now know simply as “ITV1”? Don’t blame Granada. Don’t blame Carlton. Don’t even blame the old heads of ITV who tried – and failed – with a similar scheme in 1989. Someone had to give them the idea first. And that idea very likely came from America.

Although most affiliates of an American network are independently owned, a growing number are owned by the networks themselves. Called O&O’s (Owned & Operated by…) the networks invested millions of dollars improving the technology, hiring more experienced local news presenters, and building new sets. And they decided they wanted more recognition as to who was providing the cashflow.

The CBS Mandate, for example, is a set of guidelines in the network’s rules of operation that states that any O&O must identify themselves on-air as a CBS affiliate followed by the channel number. To continue to follow Federal Communications Commission rules, however, the official call letters (the three or four-character names given to each station) must also appear on-screen, albeit in a miniscule fashion underneath the logo. So now instead of KYW, KTVT, or KEYE, you have CBS 3, CBS 11, and CBS 42. Search for the websites of any CBS-owned affiliate, and you’ll notice that they all follow the same website template and presentation style.

The Mandate rules are also followed in a similar style by the other networks, with Fox being the most strict: local news sets of O&O’s are currently being redesigned to look identical nationwide, and all Fox-owned stations will soon use the same music package.

Sound familiar? It should. All local ITV News operations now follow the same idea, with a unified look and musical presentation style, and of course anyone who receives ITV knows about the their generic presentation fiasco of years past and present.

Americans invented the idea of bombasting the viewer with national identity at the expense of local identity, and it has turned into an idea ITV found too delicious to resist.

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