A great satire forces the original designer to question their work, and there is no easier target than news broadcasting, says Adrian Shaughnessy
There’s a new comedy series on BBC2 called Broken News. It’s a witty, razor-sharp evisceration of TV news channels. Of course, news broadcasting is a soft target for satirists, and Broken News nails it all with savage accuracy: the stilted language; the fake concern; the ersatz gravitas; the faux mateyness; the anodyne sets; and the identikit newsreaders.
Nor is TV news a fresh target for comedy – Monty Python (or the Two Ronnies) might be said to have started the trend in the 1970s. But it was Chris Morris, in his 1994 series The Day Today, who perfected the art of lampooning the self-important delivery and portentous production techniques of broadcast news. So effective was Morris’ brilliant spoof that it became hard to take the real thing seriously. And nowhere was his parody more effective than in its sharply observed recreation of newsroom graphics – shiny, 3D, silicone-graphics logos tumbled through space, accompanied by throbbing synthesizer music. From then on, it was impossible for broadcast designers to use 3D graphics without inviting the comment, ‘it looks a bit Chris Morris’.
Intriguingly, Morris’ graphics were created by Russell Hilliard and Richard Norley, the designers of the then-current ITN News graphics. According to The Day Today page on the BBC’s website, Hilliard and Norley ‘welcomed the opportunity to stretch their style in this spoof’.
Broken News continues Morris’ pioneering work. Besides ridiculing the dreadful studio banter of pompous ‘anchors’, the show cruelly mocks contemporary TV news graphics. It exposes the formulaic way that most news broadcasters – and programme-makers in general – festoon their screens with unnecessary and intrusive graphic detail. Broken News jumps frenetically between a series of fictitious, but alarmingly realistic, newsrooms, and on each occasion the signposting and branding of TV stations are wittily mimicked.
We leap from Aronovitz Business News to the Go Sports 1 channel, via the cosy local news team at East Anglia’s Look Out East. Other channels arrive at dizzying speed, each one dressed-up with meticulously observed parodies of broadcast graphics. The sports channel is the funniest, with the screen covered in results and breaking ‘news’ – more information than any one needs. It’s revealing that broadcast graphics have become such an easy target for satirists. As we chuckle at the naff captions and dreary logos of Broken News, it’s worth remembering that broadcast graphics in the UK have traditionally been the best in the world. BBC2 has been a paradigm of on-screen design, and Channel 4 has consistently shown that it’s possible to have a strong visual identity alongside engaging and non-patronising graphics.
But, elsewhere, with one or two exceptions, the picture is less rosy. As Broken News demonstrates so vividly, broadcast graphics have become just another weapon in the battle to stop us changing channels, or worse, switching off.
Media-owners and programme-makers are more interested in turning themselves into brands than creating channels and programming that people want to watch. When that happens, quality and innovation tend to be neglected in favour of the predictable and the formulaic.