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Cable Goes Wild With the WilmaWatch

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Between the news tickers, stock numbers, story captions and "BREAKING NEWS" screamers, we’ve already gotten used to our cable news channels being lit up like the Ginza at midnight. But the newest addition to cable-news screens is the picture-in-picture inset, the video box in the lower-right corner that tracks an image from one story while the network covers another, as if to say that there is so much important news, we’d need to clone your TV to cover it all. Today, CNN, Fox and MSNBC have, on and off, given over the little box to enhanced satellite images of Hurricane Wilma, which swirl and re-swirl in fiery red like an animated and maleficent corporate logo.

The P-in-P device has been useful sometimes, as when the networks focused their ChimneyCams on the Vatican roof for the white smoke that would herald a new pope. But more often, like so much of cable’s graphics overload (such as the pointlessly busy multiscreens on CNN’s The Situation Room), they seem to exist simply for attention’s sake, to make the networks seem active, high-tech and all-seeing.

After all, a hurricane, even a fast-moving one, does not move at such a pace that monitoring a tiny WilmaWatch box is going to tell you anything useful. ("Wait! I think I saw it flicker one pixel to the northwest! Right there! My God, the storm track is changing! Board the windows!") CNN’s graphic adds a label of the storm’s current strength—right now, "CAT 4"—but even that seems less like helpful information and more like scorekeeping. ("Come on, baby! Back up to 5! You can do it!")

No, all that color enhanced-satellite picture tells you is that the storm is out there. And it’s big. And scary. And red.  This is not an information device; it’s an anxiety-maintenance device—making sure that you stay properly alarmed and jazzed and that you do not, under any circumstances, change that channel.

It’s understandable: part of the reason for the runaway success of Fox News is its pioneering use of graphics—it knows how to make the news look exciting, and in chasing Fox’s ratings, CNN and MSNBC have chased its look too. But after Katrina and Rita, with so many lives lost and homes destroyed, with our hurricanes up to ‘W’ and threatening to exhaust the alphabet, do any of us need any more excitement right now?

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