Opinion: Page (1) of 1 - 01/04/06 Email this story to a friend. email article Print this page (Article printing at MyDmn.com).print page facebook

Addressing the Overlay Graphics Proliferation Problem

Screen real estate is getting crowded and it?s about time someone drew up some boundaries By Guy Wright

There is a trend in the broadcast industry thats been growing for a number of years. It started out innocently enough a long time ago when the first character generators gave broadcasters the ability to overlay text on a video stream. Almost immediately broadcasters saw the potential for enhancing their programs. They could add a bit of realism and urgency to a news report simply by overlaying the word ?Live in the upper left or right corner of the screen. And if a single word was good then more words would be even better so stations started inserting things like ?Live From Washington D.C. They also started overlaying station call letters, subtitles, programming messages, and eventually promotions. With the advent of more and more sophisticated character generators text began to scroll and roll and crawl. Then it became animated and graphical. Then someone devised the push-, pull-, and squeeze-back to give stations a bit more space for text, graphics, and even more video on top of video. And now everyone has gone letterbox crazy.

Originally all these text and graphics overlays werent much of a problem since stations got a relatively overlay-free feed from the networks. Any extra text or graphics the local station wanted to insert were handled one at a time by a single technical director. But in this digital age of content re-purposing, affiliate programs, cross promotions, and multiple deployment options screen real estate is becoming more and more precious. At the same time more and more people have the opportunity to put their marks on the screen as programs pass from network to affiliate to cable or satellite company. Networks want to promote their other shows and keep viewers tuned in. Local stations also want to capitalize on those valuable corners, top- and bottom-crawl spaces, and even whole lower thirds. And, of course the cable and satellite companies want to put their marks on the screen too.

Unfortunately, this has become a land-grab, free for all with no rules, no standards, and no end in sight. Flying logos, messages, and animated graphics are piling on top of each other. Tickers march over subtitles, logos obscure tickers, and the whole mess becomes unreadable at the top and bottom of every hour when everything is squeezed-up, down, or off into a corner to make room for even more promotions. (Sooner or later some content producers are going to start getting angry that their credits are being routinely squished to a microscopic and completely unreadable postage stamp size.)

The problem is that there is no way for a station, cable or satellite company to know if, what and where someone upstream has inserted something without actually looking at the feed with human eyes. It only gets worse as more stations implement automated playout systems. Its just too easy for a network program director to say ?have the system put up our logo every ten minutes and be sure we promote that Christmas special every fifteen minutes. And of course the local affiliate station managers have told their people to have their automated playout systems put up their logo and call letters every ten minutes and their promotional graphics and animations. And further downstream the cable or satellite company want to have their graphics, text, animations, and promotions automatically inserted too. So three different people program three different systems to automatically and blindly slap in the logos and promotional graphics right on cue regardless of what might already be on the screen at the time.

Now I dont believe there is any way to turn back the overlay clock all of that screen real estate is just too valuable to ignore but I do believe that the situation has reached a point where the broadcast industry should start talking about some solutions. Now that we are on the verge of a completely digital broadcast age this could be the perfect time to open discussions.

Im not an engineer so I cant offer any specific solutions but it seems to me that it wouldnt be too difficult to insert an extra byte of data into a program stream that contains information about any graphics or text that have been inserted. For the sake of discussion lets call it the OIDF (Overlay Identification Flag). This OIDF would be a simple, digital flag that could say, in effect ?there is something inserted in the upper left corner of the screen or ?there are subtitles in this feed. That way an automated playout system could check the signal before overlaying new graphics to make sure they didnt obscure something that was already there. With just a few bytes the OIDF could describe hundreds or even thousands of different screen conditions.

As an added bonus an OIDF could also contained information such as ?this image is letterboxed or ?this image is standard 3:4. With that information television manufacturers (particularly widescreen TV manufacturers) could build displays that automatically resized signals to fit the screen.

The biggest problem with this approach is the fact that it would have to be an industry-wide solution. Everyone from character generator manufacturers, automated playout system manufacturers, network broadcasters, local stations, cable and satellite companies, and probably even the FCC would all have to agree on some standards. On the plus side however, if some enterprising character generator/graphics overlay company say Grass Valley for example wanted to step up to the plate and take the first swing at implementing something like this it could become the ?Grass Valley OIDF Standard some day.

If you wanted to take the OIDF idea to the next level you could even transmit the graphics, logos, and whatnot as a separate signal rather than burning them into the feed. That way NBC could put their logo in the upper left corner and the local NBC affiliate could swap out that graphic and replace it with their own version. Or when someone wants to repurpose some old footage they could take out any extra, outdated graphics. (Im sure everyone has seen a rebroadcast news report with the word ?LIVE burned in and thought, for a moment, that what they were watching really was live.)

In any case, I think the graphics and text overlay problems are just going to get worse as time goes by. We already have so many overlays going on that they are tripping over each other. Ive personally seen a case where a local station graphic was on top of a network logo on top of a crawl that was obscuring a subtitle. And unfortunately as graphics overlay systems and automated playout systems get better and easier to use the situation will deteriorate even further.


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Guy Wright has been kicking around computers and video for more years than he cares to admit and written too many articles to count. He has been a director, editor, producer, video operator, and announcer for a score of radio and TV stations. His credits include hundreds of insipid local-origination programs and commercials, dozens of cheesy radio spots, and even a book or two. Mainly he writes and edits articles for Digital Media Online.
Related Keywords:Overlay Graphics, character generators, subtitles, OIDF, playout,

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