If you even bother to watch it, are you actually overwhelmed by the “redesign” of CNN Headline News?

The issue, we are told, is the dividing of the sacred television screen into multiple panes, as though we were slicing up the Mona Lisa.

Some news pros question whether this is really making anyone better-informed. “Our brains simply aren’t wired to take all this in,” says [a putative industry expert]. “It’s hard enough for many people to process the information in the audio and the video. This just adds another level of distraction.”

How very amusing. What do the designers say?

On the new, happenin’ Headline News, you get CNN at MTV speed, with a smattering of youthful insouciance.... And when Headline offered a little factoid at the bottom of the screen about a guy who made a world-record burger, the header was “Bite This!”

Welcome to the Chillin’ News Network.

A totally revamped Headline News, the long-neglected stepchild of CNN, was launched... after months of toil behind the scenes, and it’s all about taking care of busy-ness. At any given time, there are at least five things going on: the anchor or story footage, shrunk to the upper right quarter of the screen; a “data box” on the left, bristling with factoids; and a wide band across the bottom that includes a changing weather map, stock quotes, sports scores and the aforementioned “Headlines,” home of the 4-ton hamburger.

It feels like an interactive Web site. [...T]he info overload comes partly from the Internet but more from CNN/fn, the numbers-heavy financial news network where [some functionary] used to work.

“I do think it’s a network for people who are used to taking in a lot of information,” a sleep-deprived [functionary] said Monday. “Everybody talks about a younger audience, but our audience is 50 to 54. I honestly programmed this network for Baby Boomers.”

Is there a sinister motive? Is AOLTV (NUblog passim) apt to rise from the sanatorium?

A recent overhaul of AOL Time Warner’s CNN Headline News cable program aims to close the gap between the TV screen and the Web, offering a potential design prototype for interactive TV programming... offering a wide range of data in multiple screens along with the traditional anchor desk.... The redesign “is about how people’s lives have changed,” he said. “If you compare TV to a Web browser, you now get boxes of information.”

The significance could be more than æsthetic, however. According to sources close to the company, the new format offers an early design prototype for interactive news programming – one of several high-level initiatives under way within AOL Time Warner to merge its traditional media businesses with the Web.

“All the systems in place used to put (“Headline News”) together could easily be folded over to be interactive,” said a CNN executive who requested anonymity. “Technology-wise, the hooks are there.”

So what’s the problem here?

First, it’s even worse than the critics think! Because – good God, man! – you can add captions to the picture!

CNN Headline News... with captions! (11 panes)
CNN Headline News... with captions!

Whoa, man. You can’t expect me to keep up with all that!

Next, compartmentalized television screens are old hat. Those who fail to heed the lessons of the opening credits of The Brady Bunch are doomed to repeat them. Just how hard is it to find competing channels with multi-pane presentation? Not very.

CablePulse 24 (11 panes)
CablePulse 24
RDI (seven panes)
Réseau de l’information
The Score (six panes)
The Score
CNBC (four panes)
MuchMoreMusic (seven frames)

Next, is it possible that the CNN Headline News format provides unlimited slots to be filled by editors and journalists of decidedly limited intelligence? In other words, is CNNHN the ultimate example of shovelware?

The Headline News remake, filling as much as three fourths of the screen with graphics, has proven a dud. I’ve seen a lot of glitches in the sports-score recaps, annoyingly abbreviated news briefs and superfluous data like lines promoting TV shows on other networks.


In fact, most of what’s in the crawl isn’t really breaking news, but hours-old news. Some of the material isn’t even news at all: The networks regularly run messages plugging upcoming programs, Web sites or viewer polls. “Now on MSNBC.Com: Asia at a glance,” read one of MSNBC’s crawls this week.

There is some truth to the stereotype that old people have single-track minds and cannot handle multisensory input. Perhaps this is not really the issue. Perhaps the issue is a mistaken belief that you’re expected to take in everything you’re given.

On the Web, the phenomenon of banner blindness is well-known. After only a few weeks of use, you develop an instant visual sophistication and can immediately decide what is and is not of interest. You then focus on that. You feel satisfied. It was good for you.

Yet when it comes to CNN Headline News, if it is indeed claimed that the multipane television experience is informed by the Web, then use your noggin: Decide on what to look at and ignore the rest.

Old television is like village life: Not much happens, and when it does, you pay full attention. New television is like city life: So much is happening you have to pick and choose.

As for the underlying compatibility between Headline News and the Web: How very amusing too. Merely the difference in size and copyfitting for TV fonts versus resizable Web text blows that claim out of the water. And then there are issues of information density: A typical Web portal page has substantially in excess of CNNHN’s 11 panes. We stopped counting on Netcenter after two dozen, and CNN has even more. And is AOL quite sure it can just blast its CNN video over the Web no problem?

Moreover, the information architecture of CNN Headline News is about as advanced as a paper electoral ballot in Florida.

At best, it could be said that CNN Headline News has a redesign that is all-new and looks like a Web site to someone who does not watch TV or surf the Web.

Posted on 2001-11-14