They’ve become a facet of almost every news broadcast, as familiar as the anchor sitting behind a desk. Within moments of the start of a newscast or panel discussion, the info-billboards on the lower third of the TV screen begin their silent unfurling:
• “German ambassador to U.S. responds to Trump’s NATO summit slams,” reads the headline on CNN.
• “With friends like these: Trump remarks irk some NATO members,” says the banner on Fox News at almost the same time.
• “Retired U.S. general: Putin is ‘happiest guy on the planet’ after Trump’s comments,” the caption beneath MSNBC’s talking heads declares a moment or two later.
The on-screen banners known as chyrons (kai-rahns) were once flat, artless labels (“President Holds Press Conference,” “Fire Destroys Home,” etc.) that were about as exciting as an airport arrival-and-departure board.
But in an era of shrinking viewer attention spans, chyrons seem almost to have come to life and achieved self-awareness. Now chyrons not only tell viewers what the news is, they tell them what to make of it.
They snark. They troll. They correct in real time. The mouthiest of them all typically start with the same word. As in . . .
• “Trump signs MLK Day proclamation after calling African countries ‘s***hole’ nations.” (MSNBC, January 2018).
• “Trump: ‘I don’t support WikiLeaks’ (He loved it in 2016.)” (CNN, April 2017).
• “Trump: ‘For the last 17 years Obamacare has wreaked havoc’ (Law signed in 2010)” (MSNBC, July 2017).
• “Trump: ‘We’ve done a great job in Puerto Rico’ (Most of island still without power)” (MSNBC, October 2017).
Chyrons began to evolve as real-time fact-checks during Trump’s 2016 campaign speeches — but more recently as a means to lift a rhetorical eyebrow over some questionable presidential statement or dramatic development. Trump himself reportedly pays close attention to the bottom-of-the-screen banners, watching them on a muted TV during meetings and reacting angrily when they trumpet another presidential scandal, outrage or faux pas.
Chyrons, in other words, have become potent agents of influence.
“If I were a politician I would never go on cable TV without first getting an agreement that there would be no writing on the screen,” says Greta Van Susteren, who has hosted programs on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC and now Voice of America. “I would tell the network: ‘You can ask me what you want, but no writing on the screen.’ ”
When cable channels began airing Trump’s raucous campaign rallies live and in full, anchors and reporters couldn’t — or wouldn’t — speak over Trump. The only thing between the candidate’s blunt pronouncements and viewers was the on-screen banner.
And so the chyron became a real-time vehicle for challenging Trump, a candidate and president who is often untethered to the facts. The chyrons do the heavy work of squaring the record while simultaneously adding some winks and eye rolls in the parentheses:
• “Trump: I never said Japan should have nukes (He did).” (CNN, June 2016).
• “Trump says he watched (nonexistent) video of Iran receiving cash” (MSNBC, August 2016).
• “Trump: Clinton is hiding (Speaking in minutes).” (MSNBC, August 2016).
• “Trump: “Voters don’t care about seeing tax returns,” accompanied by an underline reading, “Poll: 78% say Donald Trump should release his tax returns.” (CNN, September 2016).
Yes, CNN and MSNBC did this, mostly. Fox News didn’t, though it has certainly served up some mighty troll-y chyrons for Hillary Clinton and Democrats. Example: “A tale of two candidates. . . Hillary in hiding while Trump’s out on the trail.” (October 2016).
Thus, the chyron solved a problem the networks created in the first place, said Jane Hall, a journalism professor at American University.
“They gave [Trump] such a platform for so many rallies that they had to figure out a mechanism for pointing out that many of his repeated assertions weren’t based on fact,” she said. “He’s live on the air promulgating things that are provably not true. [The networks] decided here’s the way to deal with it.”
But chyrons have also been a boon to Trump, who has exploited the brevity and constancy of them to his own political advantage, Hall said.
“He’s a master at messaging, at using the same phrases over and over, like ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘carnage’. . . that fit easily into a chyron and reinforce his message,” she said. “It’s impossible to get any context across in a chyron about those things. Print [reporters] can put the facts and the context in. TV really can’t. It doesn’t really have a mechanism for that.”
The cable networks generally are reluctant to talk about their approach to chyron creation. CNN declined to comment, and Fox News didn’t respond directly. A spokesperson for MSNBC allowed, “During live broadcasts, chyrons are selected and aired by the show team in real time.” She said the process is “under the guidance of the executive producer and director, and at times includes broader input from standards and senior managers.”
Beyond Trump, the proliferation of chyrons on news broadcasts tells a larger story about the way people watch TV now. They are, in some respects, an attempted antidote to expanding TV options and declining attention spans.
News stations rarely used banners in their coverage 20 years ago, though the technology was widely available at the time. The TV landscape was a less competitive place — the Internet was still in its infancy as a news source, smartphones and streaming had yet to be introduced, and cable systems provided only a few dozen channels.
Banners and the scrolling news crawl known as “the ticker” became more common after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — few stations had either in reporting the events of that morning — and by the mid-2000s became almost standard. It was a response to evolving viewer habits and the shifting info landscape, said John Culliton, senior vice president of SmithGeiger, a Los Angeles-based media-research firm.
Chyrons became a way to arrest viewers’ attention as they surfed through hundreds of channels, he said. A dramatic or intriguing banner can stop a channel-flipper cold and can keep wavering viewers from turning away. That’s why the chyrons change so rapidly nowadays: They create “urgency” for viewers.
“In order for people to stay connected to something on a TV screen, they need consistent reinforcement that the story is developing, that there’s new information,” he said. “The chyrons help do that. The urgency of live TV is one of the remaining core strengths of broadcasting.”
Chyrons also help grab the eyeballs of the many people who watch TV while glancing at a second screen, such as a smartphone, said Marc Greenstein, vice president of design and production for NBC News and MSNBC.
He notes that people often watch TV with the sound off, or view it in a noisy public space, such as a restaurant or a gym. In these cases, a banner can be a powerful lure, drawing in a viewer who otherwise wouldn’t understand what’s being discussed or reported.
In an earlier television age, news stations had to let the pictures and the talking heads do the talking. What little on-screen text there was consisted of names and titles, rendered by means of a slide that was projected, or superimposed, on the screen. The process was time-consuming and cumbersome, hardly suited for the vagaries of breaking news and live TV.
The first electronic graphics generator for TV broadcasts was developed by Systems Resource Corp. in the mid-1960s, drawing upon the technology used for, as it happens, the arrivals and departures boards at airports, according to a company history. It was adapted by CBS Laboratories and first used by the network to identify speakers during the tumultuous 1968 political conventions.
The company’s top engineers, Eugene Leonard and Leon Weissman, dubbed a later system the Chiron, after the wise and powerful centaur of Greek mythology, said Francis Mechner, one of System Resources’ founders. The product was so successful that System Resources decided to change its name to Chiron in the mid-1970s.
The only problem: A medical products maker had already registered that name as its own. Mechner, now 87, proposed swapping the “i” for a “y,” rendering the word as Chyron. The name stuck.
The company’s dominance of the worldwide market for TV graphical systems over the next several years turned “chyron” into a generic term for any on-screen graphic. “People would say, ‘Let’s chyron that, just like they’d say, ‘Please Xerox that document,” said Mechner.
Now known as the ChyronHego Corp., the Long Island firm is one of a number of companies that sell chyron-making systems, but it doesn’t mind the way its name gets tossed around. “Why wouldn’t you want to be the first name that people think of when they think of this product?” asks Jim Martinolich, the company’s senior product manager.
Over the past 10 years or so, there’s been “a significant evolution” in TV graphics, said Peter Blangiforti, Fox News’s senior vice president of broadcast and media technology.
New systems are faster and more flexible than ever, he said, making it easier to change elements on the fly. (Maybe too easy: ABC News apologized recently for a not-even-close-to-accurate on-screen banner that said former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had pleaded guilty to five charges of manslaughter.)
The chyron, in fact, is just the start of the graphical traffic now. The banner typically bunks in above the ticker and is adjacent to a busy little box featuring the network logo, known as “the bug.” Next to this usually resides a bar reading “LIVE,” plus the time, revolving to reflect different time zones. There are rotating stock-market indexes during the day (and stock quotes express whizzing on CNBC and Bloomberg News). Sometimes, there’s a promotional graphic (“Tonight on CNN”) above the lower third. A locater box tells viewers where an event or newsmaker is. And there’s a tiny thing in the corner below this identifying the program (“Outnumbered”).
While the chyron banners tend to be pithy (“Ryan: Americans Don’t Want Open Borders”), they don’t have to be, given the ability to change fonts that can cram more words on to a line. On CNN, one day in June, the chyron was practically a paragraph: “Trump adviser Roger Stone admits meeting Russian in 2016 about offer of dirt on Clinton in exchange for $20 million.”
Still, the chyrons that get the most attention — and occasionally go viral — are short and simple. As lawmakers reacted to Trump’s cozy Helsinki news conference with Vladimir Putin in mid-July, CNN’s chyron simply read: “OUTRAGE.”
Cognitive expert Maryanne Wolf says the human brain is trained to latch onto novel stimuli — it’s how we detected threats, mates and meals as primitive beings — but its processing capacity can be overtaxed by the churning graphics of TV news. “You’re getting information,” says Wolf, who directs the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, “but you really don’t have the time to process it.”
The sensory bombardment, Wolf says, “reduces our ability to be critically analytical,” which intensifies confusion — which may make viewers more susceptible to false or inaccurate information. She thinks it would be wise to eliminate the ticker — MSNBC already has — and clear out some of the clutter.
The irony is that TV (and TV news) started as a medium of moving images. Chyrons are about text and type and headlines. They’re a throwback to a pre-TV age, when people read — not watched — the news.
Which means that if the chyrons had a skeptical, cut-to-the-chase chyron of their own, it might read, “Chyrons: We’re Just Like the Headlines in Your Newspaper.”