Visual clutter on the idiot box is distracting Americans: Study

MUMBAI: No matter which channel an American turns to on television these days he/she is likely to find some kind of a visual element that seems to overpower the screen.

This makes it difficult to focus on one thing.


Kansas State University professors Lori Bergen and Tom Grimes have come up with a study. The study notes that in the past few years, television stations in the US have begun to reformat their screen presentations to include scrolling screens, sports scores, stock prices and current weather news. These visual elements are all designed to give viewers what they want when they want it.

However this method is not working. The report states that if broadcasters want people to understand the news better, then they would do well to get that stuff off the screen. Clean it up and get it off because it is simply making it more difficult for people to understand what the anchor is saying.



The study focussed on viewers' ability to digest content in the presence of distracting information on the screen. The professors state that they discovered that when when channels have all of this stuff on the screen, people tend to remember about 10 per cent fewer facts than when the visuals are not present on the screen.

Everything a viewer sees on the screen -- the crawls, the anchor person, sports scores, weather forecast -- are conflicting bits

of information that don't hang together semantically. They make it more difficult to attend to what is the central message.

For their research, Bergen, Grimes and Potter conducted a series of four experiments that examined people's attention spans regarding complex and simple cognitive processes. The outcome of all of the experiments was that people were splitting their attention into too many parts to understand any of the content.

A bit of history would be in order at this point. 1981 marked the birth of MTV. Colourful graphics, young video jockeys and hip music seemed to be the key elements that captured viewer's attention. Robert Pittman, who created MTV, attributed the station's success to the ability of viewers in their late teens and early 20s to process multiple facets of information simultaneously. In television, success brings imitation.

When MTV's ratings soared, other stations began to adopt the presentation format. CNN's Headline News was one of the first to transform its screens to showcase more than just the anchor. the report notes that When Mary Lynn Ryan, who was CNN's producer at the time, did this the news ratings skyrocketed. So it appeared as though Robert Pittman was correct: if you are from 12-22 years old, your brain has learned how to process all these competing messages simultaneously. But people in their 30s and older have not learned how to do that.

The professors however, hypothesised that Pittman's theory was not correct. The way people process information is not something that can be learned -- rather it is a matter of perceptual grouping. The human brakn according to them is no better able to parallel process conflicting information now than it was able to 300 years ago. So this notion that Pittman had that people have learned how to do that is nonsense the professors reiterate.

Grimes says that the youth of the anchors, the language that is used and the music are all elements that contribute to a show's success -- not distracting visuals. Bergen who began the study in 2002, suggested that people can parallel

process information as long as it is semantically related -- in order for people to understand, multiple inputs of information must "hang together" in some way.

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