S.A.D. (Societal Attention Deficit)

Colored flashing lights and animated images vibrantly enhance the hypnotic attraction of Times Square. Even native New Yorkers are excited by the dazzling panorama of surrogate motion. Natives and tourists alike plunge into an atmosphere that promises seemingly infinite choices for pleasure. One image instantly surrenders to another in competition for the attention of the square’s visitors. However it is perceivedas a crass cultural phenomenon or as ‘The Great White Way’Times Square is an international center of entertainment dedicated to the seduction of an endless stream of people flowing through an asphalt canyon.

I remember the cityscape of Times Square in the 40s through the 60s when I frequented the theater district. Outstanding in a maze of lights, is the telegraph-like moving electrical type flashing news across the Times Building. Despite the proliferation of ipods, this landmark is still useful to passers-by and still casts its spell as a symbol for a cosmopolitan city. Although necessarily short on details, it heralds headlines without distractions: Yanks win first game of World Series, 1-0…Germany invades Denmark…President Kennedy assassinated… .

What works for Times Square is anathema on television. News broadcasts, packed with details, assault us with distractions in the form of moving logos, changing backdrop colors, twinkling lights, and geometric patterns that constantly clutter the entire screen during reportage and commentary.

Fox news broadcasts are primary examples of frantic background motion during newscasts. The tactic is especially incongruous on a network whose newscasters, commentators, and guests are always at least as interesting and politically balanced as those of any other network, notwithstanding ‘liberal’ protestations to the contrary. Yet, none of the other networks displays graphics quite as annoying, irritating, and distracting as those at Fox. Incredibly, one of their news segments delineates world-news snippets by a whooshing sound that my generation described as ‘static,’ the worst of all distractions.

Apparently, the executives at Fox have a curious notion that background movement is effective for keeping viewers attentive. But abstract visual distractions draw attention to themselves, competing for the viewer’s attention. Moreover, viewers are most vulnerable to distraction when they come home tired by their daily jobs.

At an even deeper level, the growing demand for brevity and rapid speech has already diminished the comprehension skills of most viewers. “Too long, didn’t read it” in academia (of all places!) has its lethal companion on television: “Too distracting, didn’t understand it.”


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