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January 12, 2000

On CBS News, Some of What You See Isn't There

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    If you were watching the "CBS Evening News" broadcast live from Times Square on New Year's Eve, you might have seen a billboard advertising CBS News out in the square behind Dan Rather. You might have looked at the well-placed billboard and wondered just exactly how it was that CBS was able to place its ad so fortuitously.

    The truth is, it didn't. The billboard and the advertisement for CBS did not exist. The image was digitally imported onto the live CBS broadcast and used to obliterate real objects, the NBC jumbotron underneath the New Year's ball and a Budweiser ad.

    Inserting digital images has become increasingly common in sports and entertainment programming -- usually to insert advertising and corporate logos and first-down markers in football -- but has generally been considered out of line on news shows, a type of programming in which the assumption of reality is considered sacrosanct and not informing viewers is considered a breach of journalistic guidelines.

    CBS News, however, is using the technology as part of a broad agreement signed last year with a technology company, Princeton Video Image. The technology has been used regularly on "The Early Show" and the news magazine "48 Hours" and was used on "The Evening News" on Dec. 30 and 31, according to CBS news executives.

    News show logos that appear real are being inserted on the sides of structures, like the General Motors building, on the back of a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, in the fountain outside the Plaza Hotel and, on yesterday's "Early Show" broadcast, in the center of Wollman Rink. In some instances, the logo clearly resembles a large billboard advertising CBS News.

    The use of the technology is part of a multiyear deal that CBS signed with Princeton Video Image to provide branding services for a variety of CBS programs. "The Early Show" has been the most ardent user of the technology and has been using it almost every day since the show's debut on Nov. 1, making it appear that a large promotional billboard is attached to the General Motors building, where the show originates.

    "We were looking for some way to brand the neighborhood with the CBS logo," said Steve Friedman, the executive producer of "The Early Show." "It's a great way to do things without ruining the neighborhood. Every day we have a different way of using it, whether it's logos or outlines. And we haven't even scratched the surface of its uses yet."

    Mr. Friedman said that the practice did not press the boundaries of ethical guidelines for CBS News.

    "It does not distort the content of the news," he said, and compared the use of the technology to earlier visual innovations.

    "I remember the hue and cry when people started to use graphics on news."

    The CBS News deal with Princeton Video Image was reported in the Jan. 3 issue of the trade magazine Broadcasting & Cable.

    Eric Shapiro, the director of the "CBS Evening News" and CBS News Special Events, said he might use the technology again on "Evening News" and that the news division examines each case individually before putting the virtual logos on the air. "The technique, I find, works best if you put it someplace where there is intended to be something," he said. "If it feels that it is not correct to use it, then we obviously won't use it."

    Mr. Rather, he said, knew about the use of the virtual technology during the broadcast and did not protest.

    "But he did not know in advance," Mr. Shapiro said. "These are not things he needs to worry about. He spends most of his time worrying about the content of the broadcast. But as a production technique he was most certainly aware that it was happening around him."

    Mr. Rather did not return a phone call seeking comment last night. Bryant Gumbel and Jane Clayson, anchors of "The Early Show," could not be reached for comment

    Harry Jessell, the editor of Broadcasting & Cable magazine, said the practice alarmed him.

    "I think it does raise some ethical questions for CBS," he said. "You would think that a TV news organization would not tamper with video, especially live video. Viewers should be able to rely on the fact that what they are seeing is actually there."

    Network news has flirted with similar technological issues once before. In 1994, the use of a fake backdrop caused an outcry in 1994 when the ABC journalist Cokie Roberts appeared in front of a picture of Capitol Hill. Peter Jennings, the ABC News anchor, introduced a report from Ms. Roberts, and said that she was reporting from Capitol Hill; Ms. Roberts, wearing a coat, appeared in front of what looked like the Capitol. But without the knowledge of network viewers or even Mr. Jennings, Ms. Roberts was actually inside the ABC News Washington bureau with a photographic image of the Capitol projected behind her. Ms. Roberts and Rick Kaplan, then the executive producer of "World News Tonight" and now the president of CNN, were both reprimanded and the network apologized on the air.

    Spokesmen for NBC, ABC and Fox said their news units did not use such digital technology on news broadcasts. Christa Robinson, a spokeswoman for CNN, said she knew of no instance of the technology's use.

  • Ameritrade. Believe in yourself (sm)

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