The Evolution of Broadcast Graphics

Graphic design has long been a part of the television and motion picture landscape. Over the years it has evolved dramatically from static, two-dimensional characters and images to dynamic, three-dimensional animations that dominate many broadcasts and films. News programs are introduced with exploding text and “breaking news” alerts while sports programs are decorated with animated scoreboards and futuristic dancing robotic football players. Weather forecasts are explained with colorful, animated maps and real-time weather radar images that show weather patterns develop over time. Computer artists have become increasingly creative at presenting stunning graphics that capture the imaginations of viewers while enhancing verbal communications by using imagery to tell the story visually.

Broadcast graphics, commonly referred to as motion or television graphics, are defined by Herbert Zettl (as cited in Foote & Saunders, 1990, p. 502) as “all two dimensional visuals especially prepared for the television camera such as studio or title cards, illustrations, maps or charts. Electronically generated titles, charts or animation—even if appearing three dimensional—are also a part of television graphics.” Not only do broadcast graphics add to the entertainment and enjoyment facets of television viewing, they provide visual accompaniment to informational content such as news, sports and weather that improve the viewer’s understanding and recall of complex content. The use of graphics, animation and special effects in television programming has become commonplace, even in broadcasts with low budget constraints.


The ability of broadcast graphics to develop into its current state over time relied heavily on the evolution of its medium, the television. Television got its beginning way back in 1884 when Paul Nipkow constructed a rather simplistic mechanical device for converting photographic imagery into electronic signals. Light was shone through an image placed before a rotating disk with perforations arranged in a spiral pattern. The result was a low quality projection of the image onto a screen. Although it didn’t work very well, the Nipkow disk was the stepping-stone others would use to transmit images electronically via television and facsimile (Fiddler, 1997).

One of those others was Scottish inventor John Logie Baird. In 1925, Baird introduced the first operational television in London, England for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). His “Televisor” system showed moving images being delivered via an electronic signal using the Nipkow disk (Barnouw, 1990). Approximately 2,000 Baird TV sets were sold between 1929 and 1937and in 1929; the BBC began public television broadcasts from their London television studio. In 1936 they adopted a fully electronic system (Fiddler, 1997).

In 1940, CBS developed a color television system that displayed a beautiful color picture but was problematic in that it didn’t work on the black-and-white televisions that currently made up the market (Fiddler, 1997). Despite these problems, and much to the chagrin of RCA, who had dominated television sales to that point, the CBS color television system was briefly accepted as the national standard by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (Barnouw, 1990). This standard was short lived, however, as the number of black-and-white sets in U.S. homes had increased from 150,000 to more than 12 million. People were unwilling to pay for the new, more expensive color sets and CBS’ programming was not reaching enough of the market to justify the decision. In 1953, the FCC approved RCA’s standard instead (Fiddler, 1997). RCA soon released a color system that worked with black-and-white sets as well as color. Although the rate of adoption was slow, the addition of color to television broadcasting was considered to be the most dramatic technological improvement and “color television, typically increased viewing” (Comstock, 1989, p. 81).

Motion Graphics

The origin of broadcast graphics, as is the case of many television technologies, came from film. Saul Bass (1920-1996) became the first significant motion graphic designer in the early days before computer generated graphics invaded the industry. He designed the opening title sequences for many popular films such as The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960) among others. Bass was an extremely talented and productive designer, and is commonly cited as being a pioneer in the field of motion graphics. By today’s standards, Bass’ designs seem relatively simple and languid, but they were effective and considered state-of-the-art at the time. During this period all graphics were created by hand or on film, without the aid of computers, and were extremely time consuming and expensive to produce. Bass designed opening title sequences for 21 movies in the 1950’s, a remarkable achievement considering the time consuming limitations presented by existing technology (Meggs, 1997).

Improvements in computer technology eventually led to the advent of computer generated graphics, which refers to the representation and manipulation of image data by a computer. A graphic designer for The Boeing Company, William Fetter, coined the term, computer graphics, in 1960. Fetter’s early work at Boeing was focused on the development of ergonomics in relation to the human form for use in flight simulation. Fetter stated in a 1978 interview (as cited in Carlson, 2003), “There has been a long-standing need in certain computer graphics applications for human figure simulations, that as descriptions of the human body are both accurate and at the same time adaptable to different user environment.” The “Boeing Man”, or what Fetter referred to as the “First Man”, is one of the most recognized iconic images from the early beginnings for computer graphics. As Brian Winston (1998) would argue, the development of new media technologies, such as computer graphic software and applications, to fulfill the same basic function as those filled by previously known methods, comes about due to a supervening social necessity. The technology used to design and construct airplanes created the necessity for the adoption of computer graphic technology to simulate the way in which the human form would interact within the aeronautic environment.

The use of computer-generated graphics certainly wouldn’t be limited to use in human simulation and industrial design. Soon, the advantages of digitally produced type, images and animations would find their way into film and broadcast television. Companies began springing up that specialized in the production and distribution of digital motion graphics. One of the first computer graphic houses, Digital Effects, was formed in New York in 1978. Not only did DE contribute to produce opening title sequences for motion pictures such as TRON, they established themselves among the major television networks by producing graphics for national advertisements and television promotions (Carlson, 2003).

The Present

In the 1980s, artists and graphic designers began using personal computers such as, the Commodore Amiga and Macintosh for design purposes. Enabling them to draw more accurately and in a fraction of the time than other methods, computers were used to create some of the first fully computer-generated animated films at Pixar who would later join forces with Disney. The 1980s also introduced the graphical user interface (GUI), through which symbols, icons and pictures, rather than text, represent data and information. This created a more user-friendly experience that is still used in industry computers today (Carlson, 2003).

John Warnock, the eventual founder of Adobe Systems, developed further improvements in computer graphics technology. Warnock helped develop printing and page description systems at PARC, leading to the first WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) computer. Adobe’s software and Apple’s Macintosh computers soon became the industry standards that would forever change the landscape of desktop publishing and graphic design (Carlson, 2003). Adobe products such as Photoshop, Illustrator and After Effects would become essential tools for graphic artists designing for television (Edsall, 2008).

The 1990s brought more innovations such as 3D graphics, which were used extensively in animation and video games. Eventually, full-length computer-generated animation films, such as Toy Story in 1995, were being released and captivating audiences worldwide (Carlson, 2003). Competition to develop more realistic and stunningly detailed animation resulted in a supervening social need (Winston, 1998) for more powerful computers, better, specialized software and talented artists.

Television News Programming

Computer-generated graphics also forever changed the face of television news, weather and sports programming. Before computers, the use of graphics were limited to still photographs, video or film clips that encompassed the entire screen, or physical background images such as maps or graphs (Foote & Saunders, 1990). With desktop software making the production of graphics easier, faster and less expensive, the major television networks increased their use in the news programming. This form of disruptive innovation replaced existing methods for the creation and use of graphics in broadcast television which was time consuming and expensive, and essentially created a new market by making it easier for graphic designers to create complex designs (Christensen, 2004). Television news now had a visually aesthetic way to attract, engage, and communicate with viewers. The use of advanced computer-generated graphics is thought to enhance information content and communication capability for news programming such as headline news, weather forecasts and sports statistics (Bech, J., Molina, T., Vilaclara, E. and Lorente, J., 2010). Indeed, Fox et al. (2004) conducted a series of experiments to determine how the addition of text and animated graphics influence how well viewers processed television news stories. Their data revealed that the presence of graphics helped viewers store and retrieve information more easily in general, and helped younger viewers better understand information presented in more complex, difficult to understand stories. Graphics also helped in capturing the viewers’ interest and holding their attention throughout the broadcast. Joe S. Foote and Ann C. Saunders (1990) note:

Graphic forms on the evening news have become a mainstay of network television, appearing in a high percentage of all stories. As all three television networks (ABC, NBC & CBS) have begun to rely more on graphics to communicate the news, visual manipulation, selection, sequencing and purpose have emerged that could affect how viewers comprehend the news (p. 506).

Clearly, the use of motion graphics in the broadcasts of informational programs, such as news, weather or sports, attracts the interest of viewers, holds their attention and enhances the their ability to process, remember and understand messages better than if no visual aides were present.

By 1988 some form of graphic coverage appeared in 78% of all news stories reported by the three major network newscasts, either to introduce a story or to explain some element of a story (Foote & Saunders, 1990). Herbert Zettl explains the phenomena as a “graphication” of television news. He states (as cited in Foote & Saunders, 1990):

Computer-generated graphics pop on the screen to give us headlines, field reporters and their stories are squeezezoomed in and out over the news anchor’s shoulder, and fancy lettering repeats what we have heard the newscaster tell us. Through the magic of digital video, live scenes are frozen into still images and peeled off page by page as though we were flipping through a magazine (p. 501).

Sports programming jumped on the motion graphics bandwagon as well, with shows like ABC’s Wide World of Sports setting the standards that others would soon follow. Producer Roone Arledge was instrumental in boosting ABC’s lackluster ratings in the 1970s by presenting sports in a new, entertainment focused light. He gave faces to athletes by developing behind the scenes human-interest stories about them. He brought in colorful characters like Howard Cosell and Don Meredith to provide analysis and insight, and used multiple camera angles and eye-popping graphics to optimize the viewer experience. Essentially, he made competitive sports meaningful to viewers by creating a “narrative framework”, therefore creating a connection between audience and athlete (Newcomb, 2004). Soon, other sports programming and entire sports networks, such as ESPN, began following the Arledge model. ESPN offered sports programming 24 hours a day, expanding on ABC Sports’ example (ESPN is actually owned by Disney and ABC). From its humble beginnings to today’s sophisticated high definition broadcasts, ESPN uses 3D effects, constant motion and spectacular video footage to lure in viewers and keep them captivated and engaged (Barnouw, 1990).

Perhaps the most prominent use of motion graphics in helping viewers to process complex information has come from TV weather broadcasts. Satellite weather radar imagery, advanced computer graphics, and even animated characters have been extensively used to convey complex meteorological data in an easy to understand format. Radar images enable broadcasters to display real-time visual maps of pressure systems, estimate precipitation levels and storm-front tracking. Competition led to U.S. stations acquiring their own weather radar systems and applying their own brand to them in order to offer viewers a unique perspective on weather information (Bech et al., 2010). Animated maps and stunning 3D graphics present engaging visual representations of storms, jet streams, high-pressure systems, low-pressure systems, temperatures across the country and much more. Forecasters appear to be interacting with these maps through the use of green screens (or blue screens) and chroma keying, which allows designers to digitally project graphics behind the talent so it appears they are part of the animation (Edsall, 2008). The Weather Channel (TWC), established in 1982, began broadcasting 24-hour forecasts and weather related entertainment (Batten & Cruikshank, 2002). Like ESPN, it offered viewers a channel dedicated to weather information they could tune into any time with similar, high quality graphics and animations that made viewing the weather more that informational; it made it entertaining.

NBC, ABC and CBS now had a slew of new competitors due to the emergence of cable and satellite TV networks popping up such as C-SPAN, ESPN, TWC and CNN (Barnouw, 1990). CNN, like ESPN and TWC, used spectacular graphics to grab the audiences’ attention. Cable now offered viewers dozens of choices previously unavailable and networks had to adapt and differentiate themselves in order to compete. In this way, Clayton Christensen (2004) might contend, cable acted as a sustaining innovation that improved television for American audiences by appealing to their interests through the multitude of new channels. Now, there was something for everyone.

Cable Network News (CNN) led the way in which news programs used graphics in conjunction with their news stories. Like ESPN, they offered 24-hour news programming wrapped in eye-popping motion graphics and video. News stories now presented themselves like major motion pictures, with coverage like “War in the Gulf” and “Operation Desert Storm” grabbing audiences’ attention and keeping them riveted to their screens. CNN had a major influence on how network news programs now presented themselves. Media scholar John Thorton Caldwell noted (as cited in Cooke, 1990):

CNN demonstrated the pervasive possibilities of videographic presentation. Starting in 1980 – and without any apparent or overt aesthetic agenda – CNN created and celebrated a consciousness of the televisual apparatus; an appreciation for multiple electronic feeds, image-text combinations, videographics, and studios with banks of monitors that evoked video installations. Ted Turner had co-authored the kind of cyberspace that video- freaks and visionaries had only fantasized about in the late 1960s (p. 35).

Scannable Design

Beginning in the 1970s, television news programs’ structure and graphics evolved from a presentation style in which scrolling graphics or video consumed the entire screen to smaller text-and-picture composite graphics positioned to the side and below the anchor. Blank & Garcia note (as cited in Cooke, 2005) the “composite graphics ‘exist to enhance content, to present a clearer picture of a message, to lure the viewer who may be watching but not listening, and to clarify meaning’ (p. 33). By structuring the screen in this way, viewers were not limited to consuming the news being presented by the anchor at any particular time. They could search the screen and ascertain what information being presented was of interest and what was not. This helped to increase the scannability of news programs by summarizing the story in a visual manner. Cooke (2005) describes the use of visual presentation to enhance and improve viewer accessibility as “scannable design.” The elements that comprise “scannable design” have been defined and organized in the following two categories:

  1. Structure. The layout of information on the screen – including: grids, white space, and modular design – that form a visual framework.
  2. Graphics. The pictorial representation of information, including: photographs, charts, maps, illustrations, information graphics, composite graphics, and animated sequences (p. 29).

During the 1980s the presentation style of television news changed again, mainly due to advances in production technology and increased competition. Studios took on a “command center” look, with a busy newsroom behind the anchor and dozens of video monitors creating visual action and more focal points for the audience. In addition to the futuristic look of the studio, sophisticated animated graphic sequences were used to lend action to visually static news stories (Cooke, 2005).

The 1990s and 2000s brought more changes yet in the way studios used graphics in the presentation of news stories. Heavily influenced by the three-panel layout typical of Internet news websites that were becoming a major part of the information medium, broadcast news programs took on a modular look with the screen broken into three distinct sections. Positioned just left or right of center, the anchor now shared the screen with a content panel, usually containing a composite graphic or video footage relative to the story, and a scrolling ticker panel at the bottom of the screen, often referred to as the “lower third”, which housed top stories of the day, weather information, and sports scores and statistics. These modules, or segments, created continual onscreen motion, visually designed to keep the viewers’ attention throughout the broadcast (Cooke, 2005).

Many, including journalists and media critics, criticized the format as being too busy and overwhelming for audiences. Steve Johnson (as cited in Cooke, 2005) described it as looking too much like a “jumbled internet news site, except with smother running video and no place to put your mouse” (p. 41). Deborah Potter (2001) contends that having so many onscreen tickers, pop-up graphics and overblown headlines is making the screen too cluttered, overwhelming the viewer with “TMI – too much information” and making it too difficult to process all the information. Potter also believes that a lot of graphics are “fundamentally misleading.” The “breaking news” label loses its meaning when it’s plastered across every story, weather bulletin and sports score. Indeed, viewers may become skeptical and even resentful at the idea of news programs using such graphics simply to lure in viewers rather than alerting them to actual important headline news. The modular design has, however, been popular with audiences who like the ability to scan the screen and get the information they’re interested in with a single glance. As Blank and Garcia noted (as cited in Cooke, 2005), news and graphics are presented in this manner to “enhance content, to present a clearer picture of a message, to lure the viewer who may be watching but not listening, and to clarify meaning” (p. 33).

The Future

As was the case for its history, the future of broadcast graphics depends largely on its medium, the television.  Marshall McLuhan (1994), in his book The Medium is the Message, proposes that the characteristics of a medium, and not the content that it contains, are the factors in which society is influenced the most. He contends the medium, in this case television, has a direct effect on how the audience interprets the message that is being communicated. Although computer generated graphics are part of the content viewed on television, however, the fact that new technologies have made it possible for these graphics to become so realistic, perhaps they are shaping the way in which audiences view and interpret content via television and the web.

As advances in digital television, computers and design software continue, opportunities for television graphic departments to create high quality composite graphics and special effects abound. High definition television (HDTV) offers higher screen resolution and a larger screen aspect ratio in which to work (Edsall, 2008). News programs broadcast in high-definition can use the addition screen space to provide the viewer with even more information at a glance, with tickers not only scrolling along the bottom of the screen but up the side as well. NASCAR already makes use of the additional screen space in its auto-racing broadcasts. In addition to headline news, sports scores, and weather updates scrolling along the bottom of the screen, car and driver statistics have their own ticker, making the screen look more like a web page than a television (Edsall, 2008).

Virtual set environments are a new trend in television set design, with news and sports programming using computer graphic backgrounds as opposed to studio space that was used in the past. Anchors are shot in front of a blue or green screen, allowing the computer to generate a graphical background. This has already been used extensively in weather forecasts, as the weather anchor appears to stand before a map or weather chart. Advances in computer-generated graphics allow for more a realistic relationship between the on-air talent and the virtual background (Edsall, 2008). 3D HDTV is another advancement in the medium that could affect how motion graphics are produced and displayed for television audiences. “Breaking news” updates may pop off the screen and weather maps could invade the viewers’ living rooms.

Convergence between television, computers and mobile devices is creating the need for more interactive forms of broadcast graphics. The younger generation are much more engaged, less passive viewers. Weather stations in European countries such as Spain are using computer-generated graphics to create animated forecasters to deliver weather information in a more interactive manner. Sam, an animated weather character for the Catalan Corporation of Radio and Television, delivers specific forecasts in real time across multiple platforms including television, computers and mobile devices. Viewers can choose the language they want to receive forecasts in and access them at any time (Bech et al., 2010).

Finally, the Internet will almost certainly play an increased roll in how broadcast news stations structure the manner in which graphics are used to enhance the viewer’s ability to process and absorb complex information and entertainment. Edsall (2008) believes the television and computer may eventually combine to create a “tele-puter” of sorts, enabling viewers to interact more with their sets. Already, devices exist that allow viewers to stream programs across the Internet and watch shows when and where they want across multiple devices. It only goes to reason that interactive graphics are integral parts in allowing audiences to interact with the new technologies.

Broadcast graphics will continue to push the envelope when it comes to producing high quality, visually stunning accompaniments to informational television programming. Computer technology combined with advancements in digital television capabilities will open up a world of possibilities for talented motion graphic designers who will only be limited by their imagination. The fusion between television and the Internet may lead to broadcast graphics incorporating more interactive features allowing viewers to control the stories they want to view as the would on news websites. In any event, broadcast graphics have proven to be an integral part of how television audiences view and process the information they receive from new, sports and weather programming.

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  1. #1 by to songs on April 8, 2013 - 7:28 am

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  2. #2 by Smart on August 14, 2014 - 2:47 am

    This article is useless without images.

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