February 18, 2009

For Sputnik, Ben Blank used a golf ball on a wire attached to a globe, with glitter on a black background.

Ben Blank, who just died at age 87, was the guy who innovated the use of graphic images behind the talking head on the TV news.
For most of the 1950s, television news broadcasts, in black and white, were visually austere. Anchors sat at small desks with a simple clock or map hanging on the wall behind them; often the name of a sponsor was displayed in front. Mr. Blank, a cartoonist for four years in the Air Force who was hired by CBS as a graphic designer in 1953, believed that to pique and retain the viewer’s interest, it was necessary to provide a visual mnemonic that would serve as a logo for the story. This was especially useful when a photograph or film was difficult to obtain on deadline. The image, known in TV news-speak as the “over-the-shoulder” graphic, could be repeated as needed to show narrative continuity from day to day. Mr. Blank also called it the “think-quick visual.”
We take these graphics for granted, but somebody had to think of the idea of filling in the screen around the head with something related to the story, something more interesting than a damn clock. Here's something that is such an integral part of our visual world, and I love hearing the details of the particular man who first got the idea. Surely, if he hadn't thought of this, someone else would have, but perhaps the images would have evolved quite differently if they hadn't originated with one particular man.

Do you think that the fact that his name was Blank had something to do with his being first to perceive the problem/potential of the blank space around the news anchor's head?

16 comments:

traditionalguy said...

It's way to early to think such Althousian Thoughts, After I have my coffee, I will try again. My mind is a blank.

feleron said...

No.

AllenS said...

An old adage: Fill in the blank.

traditionalguy said...

The new people on the planet watching TV and born since 2000 will have to see his interesting mneomic visuals set-decor in museums. Today's shows have the flashing, sparkling, zooming computer generated cosmic light shows everywhere. They new set designers must all be graduates of the NY School of Hypnotists.What would happen to an old fashioned set, maybe still in use somewhere? Would it be so different that it attracted people like the 1900 era settings in PBS specials.

rhhardin said...

Walter Winchell used fake morse code, originating the use of fake for newscasts.

mydismalswamp said...

I just love the fact that he was a cartoonist for the Air Force for four years.

Psychedelic George said...

“You guys in Televisionland haven’t figured it out, have you? When the pictures are powerful and emotional, they override if not completely drown out the sound. I mean it, Lesley. Nobody heard you.”

What Reagan aide Dick Darman said to the incredibly naive Lesley Stahl.

And this is why we see a story on Drudge today about Obama suddenly surrounding himself in American flags.

ricpic said...

Oh how I long for John Cameron Swayze: 15 minutes and a blank wall behind him.

traditionalguy said...

Rh... Not really? My whole childlike respect for Newsmedia has dissolved. You mean the Morse Code was faked too?? Where can I find any Truth? This is really disconcerting. Next you will tell me Ronald Reagan was a stand-in body double after 1984. Are you real? I do still like live TV 30 minutes before it's edited to "tell a story". That must be why the on the scene reporters always are telling the story they came to cover and not what is happening right before our eyes on a live feed. P T Barnum was right.

k*thy said...

It's funny how last names are like that.

Too bad there aren't some links (in the obit) to some of those graphics. I'm certain I'm familiar with them all and would love to see a collection. I love that old stuff.

William said...

The greatest invention of the 20th Century was the tv remote control. The best invention of the past twenty years was microwavable bacon.....It's amazing how such obvious things take so long to get invented. Post-it notes for example. The horse stirrup wasn't invented until about 600 AD. The Aztecs had wheels on children's toys but no wheeled vehicles....I think dental floss can be improved on.

William said...

The greatest invention of the 20th Century was the tv remote control. The best invention of the past twenty years was microwavable bacon.....It's amazing how such obvious things take so long to get invented. Post-it notes for example. The horse stirrup wasn't invented until about 600 AD. The Aztecs had wheels on children's toys but no wheeled vehicles....I think dental floss can be improved on.

pduggie said...

The other day I called my pharmacy to get a prescription refilled. I don't usually have a prescription to be refilled, so this was the first time I'd called.

As I went through the phone tree of entering my presciption number and confirming, the system used a dull organic "tick-tock" sound in the background after saying something like "We're putting your presciption into the system".

I was struck that I 1) hadn't heard this kind of processing sound 2) this was the audio equivalent of a progress bar in the PC 3) It was so much better than dead air.

Someone designed that! I'm inspired to find out who and thank them.

Original Mike said...

Nowadays, TV images tend toward sensory overload. And there is no attempt to keep the graphic overlays (usually at the bottom) from obscurring elements of the primary image. I don't know how may times I've tried to decipher subtitles when the bottom half of the words are covered by an overlay. You'd think somebody would try and corrdinate that, but they apparently don't give a damn.

And don't get me started on the creap-over crap they superimpose at the bottom telling you about the next program, or the program they're showing two weeks from now, complete with walk-on characters, little explosions, and monster trucks.

blake said...

Get used to it, OM: They only use it for station promos (coming up shows and the like) now, but I suspect that this is where the future of advertising is.

Why?

'cause you can't skip it.

Original Mike said...

Oh, I'm aware of that Blake, and it really bums me out.