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The Journal of Sonic Studies
Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 3, nr. 1 (October 2012)Anthony Enns: THE ACOUSTIC SPACE OF TELEVISION

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol03/nr01/a08

Television as Mosaic Mesh

One of the earliest attempts to present textual information on the television screen was the development of teletext, an information retrieval service that offered a wide range of text-based information, including news, sports, weather reports and programming schedules. The BBC introduced the first teletext system, now known as “Ceefax” (short for “see facts”) in 1972. Ceefax was initially limited to 30 pages of text, but when it was formally launched in 1976 it had already been expanded to 100 pages. By the mid 1980s Ceefax was broadcasting several hundred pages, which were constantly updated throughout the day, and built-in decoders were available as an option on nearly all European television sets (for more on Ceefax, see Thomas 2011: 61-62). The first teletext service in North America was launched by station KSL in Salt Lake City in 1978. CBS subsequently performed their own preliminary tests using both the British teletext system and the French Antiope system. The most prominent American teletext service was Electra, which was broadcast on cable channel WTBS in the early 1980s. However, teletext failed to attract a sufficient number of users in the US, and the Electra teletext service was eventually discontinued in 1993.

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Figure 3: Electra Teletext Service

Although teletext is rarely discussed in most histories of television (Jensen 2008 is a rare exception), it represents perhaps the earliest example of a new conception of television as an electronic newspaper, which predated the internet by several decades. Each page of teletext data includes fragments of information, such as news headlines, stock prices, weather forecasts, and advertisements, which are not connected by any logic except the time and date of the transmission. Like the newspaper, therefore, teletext represents a non-linear mosaic of discontinuous elements, and it clearly refutes Chion’s claim that “silent television is inconceivable” (Chion 1994: 165).

Another development that brought more textual information to the television screen was the use of news tickers, which are also known as “scrolls,” “crawlers,” or “slides.” The first tickers appeared in the northern parts of the US in the early 1980s, when local and network newscasts began featuring information on school schedule changes and the cancellation of school bus services due to inclement weather. Severe weather warnings were also featured on local station tickers, and in the beginning these tickers were often accompanied by a warning tone or the use of theme music. On NBC, for example, weather tickers were initially accompanied by the same chimes that the network used as its official audio logo or sonic signature. In the mid 1980s ESPN also introduced a sports ticker that would feature up-to-the-minute sports scores at the top or bottom of the screen every half hour. In the late 1980s CNN Headline News became the first television network to feature a continuously running ticker on the bottom of the screen. The CNN ticker initially featured stock prices during business hours, but in 1992 it was combined with the “HLN Sports Ticker,” which became the first continuous 24-hour ticker on television. The attacks on September 11, 2001 played a particularly significant role in encouraging the widespread use of news tickers. On the morning of September 11, Fox News introduced a continuous ticker at the bottom of the television screen in order to provide emergency information to viewers. CNN and MSNBC introduced similar tickers soon after. Although the need to report emergency information lasted only a few weeks, all three networks eventually decided that these tickers would help increase viewership, particularly among viewers with the ability to process multiple simultaneous streams of information. As a result, tickers soon became a standard feature of television news.

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Figure 4: Fox News Ticker

Of course none of these textual features were entirely new, as sports scores, election results, and closed captioning were all long-standing practices that involved the presentation of textual information on television screens. In recent years, however, the number of such features has multiplied dramatically, fueled in part by the 24-hour news cycle, the rise of electronic trading, and the increased size of television sets (see Cushion and Lewis 2010).

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Figure 5: Fox Business News

Another feature that brought more textual information to the television screen was the use of pop-up windows and advertisements. One of the earliest examples of the inclusion of pop-up windows was featured on Pop Up Video (1996-), a television program broadcast on VH1 that showed music videos along with word balloons—officially known as “info nuggets”—containing background information, entertainment news, pop culture trivia, jokes, and other forms of commentary that were often unrelated to the videos themselves (see Burns 2004).

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Figure 6: Pop Up Video

Pop-up advertisements are overlays that usually appear at the bottom of the television screen. These “banners” or “logo bugs,” as they are also known, are similar to news tickers, although they are not continuous and they often block out part of the image (in some cases, they take up as much as 25 percent of the available screen space).

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Figure 7: Pop-up Advertisement

For some examples of invasive pop-up advertisements, see the following video:

Another example of how television is increasingly featuring more textual information is the incorporation of twitter feeds. While twitter feeds are often incorporated into television news coverage of various events, some networks have begun to introduce continuously streaming twitter feeds during television programs.

One event that especially helped to promote the integration of television and twitter was the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton on April 29, 2011. Viewers were invited to interact with the ABC News’ coverage of the event by using the hashtags #RoyalSuccess and #RoyalMess. Viewers could also share their thoughts and opinions with CNN by including the hashtag #CNNTV in their tweets. As a result, viewers around the world posted millions of tweets during the broadcast, and the twitter traffic peaked at roughly 16,000 tweets per minute.

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Figure 8: Live Coverage of the Royal Wedding on CNN

Samsung has also introduced a new application called “TV Twicker,” which is designed to enable the complete integration of television and twitter:

Perhaps the most significant recent development in the distribution and reception of television programming is the rise of internet television and video on demand services, which allow viewers to interact with the internet through the television screen. The earliest version of internet television was Web TV, which was launched in 1996. Web TV allowed viewers to check e-mail, surf the internet, and watch streaming video through the television set, although it required dial-up modem access. Microsoft purchased Web TV in 1999, and in 2001 it was relaunched as MSN TV. Microsoft also partnered with Rogers Cable to introduce “Rogers Interactive TV,” which was the first broadband implementation of MSN TV. The Homechoice service also began providing a 60-channel streaming television service using broadband in 2003, but download speeds were still quite slow. As broadband speed increased, the BBC began developing their “interactive media player” or iPlayer, which was released in 2007. This service was tremendously successful due to its ease of use, high-quality content, and constant updates (see Bennett and Strange 2011: 1-2; Evans 2011: 45-47).

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Figure 9: BBC iPlayer

As a result of the success of iPlayer, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5 soon introduced their own video on demand services. Other internet television providers include Hulu in the US, Nederland 24 in the Netherlands, ABC iview and Australia Live TV in Australia, and Tivibu in Turkey.

As a result of these innovations, the television screen has increasingly become a vast field of multisensory data, including images, sounds, and texts, and viewers are now expected to learn how to process multiple simultaneous streams of information and navigate the often complex media interfaces that provide metadata on programming content. This gradual integration of television and the internet clearly supports McLuhan’s notion of television as an acoustic space. First, the increasing use of textual features reinforces the notion of television as a flat, two-dimensional surface that defies Renaissance perspective and reflects the spatial qualities associated with hearing. Second, the juxtaposition of optical, acoustic, and written information provides an ideal example of what McLuhan describes as the “simultaneous field of relations,” as television is increasingly becoming an assemblage of parallel but not converging information streams. Third, the discontinuous juxtaposition of simultaneous yet unrelated information streams effectively forms a mosaic mesh, where the relationship between figure and ground is constantly shifting and changing. Fourth, meaning is generated not through the isolation of a single continuous information stream or sensory channel, but rather through the resonances created through the gaps and discontinuities between information streams. Finally, because the relationship between figure and ground is dependent on the choices made by the viewer, television audiences now play an increasingly actively role in constructing the meaning of televisual texts. In some cases, such as the royal wedding in 2011, the activities performed by viewers even become part of the televisual text itself.