Computer software and the graphical standardization of television news

The 1991 gulf war was the "first total electronic war in history" (paul virilo). Images from the battlefields were now available in "real time" possible – and yet could not be broadcast. The censorship of the pentagon prevented the broadcasting – and forced the graphic departments in the broadcasting stations "to develop innovations". The gulf war, according to the american journalist john r. Macarthur, was also the "first real video-logo war". "Operation wustengrafik". "I think", according to graphics professor philip meggs, "that television graphics became mouthy in a sense with the gulf war".

Graphics are as much a part of television as pictures and sound. Already very early graphs of simple kind – at first black and white, later also in color – were inserted into the current program. The tagesschau, for example, already had a graphics department in its early days, which was supposed to make news clearer with brushes and scissors. By the turn of the millennium, the graphics department of ard-aktuell, which provided tagesschau, tagesthemen, nachtmagazin and wochenspiegel with illustrations, graphics and animated films, had grown to 30 employees.

Since the end of the 1980s, the department has also been working on electronic, i.H. Software-dependent basis. The television graphics were now produced on computers, on "high-performance computers" (to the value of around three million dm), but they were incorporated comparatively rarely and rather inconspicuously into the programs. "The graphics", as department head horst ruppel put it in 1999, "were not allowed to impose themselves, they were not allowed to interrupt the flow of information."

Powerpoint turned knowledge into information

The powerpoint presentation program was launched by microsoft in 1987, completely independently of television. It enabled the creation of initially simple, then increasingly sophisticated presentations on the computer. For the first time, software existed with which all content could be presented in standardized forms: business, science, tabloid, politics. Above all, the new software made it possible to integrate text, images, sound and film very easily.

Powerpoint initially revolutionized the presentation of knowledge; it turned knowledge into information. And it spread rapidly and without competition: in 2001 the program of the monopolist microsoft dominated 95% of the presentation software market. Powerpoint’ became a synonym for computer-assisted presentations. Computers were a prerequisite for using the program.


Fig. 2: animated graphics at rtl-aktuell, 8. December 2014 (6.45 h) and zdf heute, 5. December 2014 (7 p.M.)

Powerpoint is used today "from childhood" (konrad paul liessmann). Students have to create powerpoint presentations, students their papers, professors their lectures. "After 25 years of powerpoint", bettina weiguny recently wrote, "corporations, government agencies and associations are steeped in it down to the last detail." powerpoint is a skill like reading or writing.

In everyday life, information is therefore passed on less and less by word-fixated lectures, but by – more diverse – presentations. Der text wird durch bild, grafik und ton erganzt oder auch uberdeckt. Today, all social classes and age groups know, understand or use this form of presentation. Powerpoint has created a powerful, yet largely invisible, societal connection. It has become part of the environment. Edward tufte’s criticism "powerpoint is evil" (2003) remained largely without consequences.

But with powerpoint you act differently than without. The program, according to liessmann, "standardizes teaching behavior to an unprecedented extent".

Declarative news

Around the turn of the millennium, german television stations also began to radically change the aesthetics of their news broadcasts. The news – still read from paper – was understood less and less; even simplifications in syntax and vocabulary as well as approximations to colloquial language only helped to a limited extent. Viewers no longer understood the daily news, for example. And so the broadcasters – for the first time – relied specifically on graphics and graphics programs, in short: on ‘powerpoint’. The concept, which had long been established in society, was also to revolutionize television and its news.


Fig. 3.: public and private reinforcements through ‘powerpoint’ graphics. Zdf heute (7 p.M.) from 20. November 2014 and rtl aktuell from 4. December 2014 (6.45 pm)

In 2004, rtl aktuell received a new studio in koln. Complicated ies were now also made more vivid through the increased use of animated graphics. Graphics stood for a new vividness.

In 2009, zdf modernized its news studio for 30 million euros – and in mainz, too, special attention was paid to graphic (and partly virtual) elements. According to jochen spieb, the team leader of the graphics editors, in the zdf yearbook 2009, they are, "crucial didactic tools to innovatively implement ‘explanatory messages’". Graphics stood here for additional explanations and didacticization. The technical innovations changed the style and aesthetics of news broadcasts to such an extent that a new occupational field became necessary: the graphics editor.

In 2014, ard-aktuell also received a new studio with a 17-meter-wide media wall as a backdrop for 24 million euros. In hamburg, too, the new technology was to enable new dramaturgical possibilities, clarity and simplicity. "Difficult facts", according to a tagesschau.De page, "can be presented more clearly in the form of animated graphics".

Television news with ‘powerpoint’ aesthetics

News from the new studios is consistently more image and graphics oriented than traditional television news. They start in flat studios, the presenters move (except on the news) along huge screens and animations and sometimes like on a news catwalk. The modern studios have become presentation rooms. Presentation rooms in which the presenters obviously have no control over the course of the program. Instead of a remote control they have index cards.


Fig. 4: reinforcements through text and graphics: tagesthemen from 26. November and zdf heute from 2. December, 7 p.M.

The extent to which ‘powerpoint’ has come to dominate the aesthetics of modern news broadcasts is shown above all by the three-step graphics (in the corporate design) that are extremely popular on public and private stations. Political, economic, programmatic changes are narrated in such a way that they can also be presented graphically (as a slide). Step by step, duplicating the off-report, a graphic is built up about the law on fracking: "fracking – at the earliest from 2019". Then comes the next bullet point: " – no water and nature reserves" added. And finally follows: "- environmental compatibility tested" (zdf today). The thuringian coalition agreement is illustrated element by element as follows: "coalition agreement: – a free kindergarten year; – demanded jobs for the long-term unemployed; – all without new debts" (rtl news).

Beyond perception

"The overall course" of news broadcasts, as zdf communications director alexander stock described the reform intentions in 2009, "is becoming fugitive. Even with the graphics used to illustrate short news items. More transitions instead of hard cuts. The viewer may not be able to consciously perceive and describe this, but he will feel it". But the techno-aesthetic smoothing has consequences for the content: the new messages are no longer paying, they are paying up. Static. Powerpointed.


Fig. 5: messages as ‘powerpoint’ presentation. E.On conversion as graphic. Night magazine from 2. December 2014 (all screenshots krug)

And these content-related limitations are further strengthened by another element – again caused by ‘powerpoint’. Images, animations, graphics are additionally provided with text and graphics. In a report on the gasoline price app, for example, the images from a gas station are accompanied by additional information such as "up to 20 cents" and "18.00 to 20.00 o’clock" . They should make clear even to the last that in this period gasoline "up to" 20 cents cheaper. And on the occasion of the anniversary of the stiftung warentest the 92.459 products that were tested are not only named, but also acknowledged with their own text module: "products 92.459". The graphic leads to numbers, numbers, numbers.

So the adoption of ‘powerpoint’ elements does not automatically lead to more descriptive messages as is widely amed. For a long time now, (graphics) technology has been helping to determine what is important in television news today. Almost invisible and yet decisive. Graphics software is also a gatekeeper.