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Digital developments: Networks changing images on your TV

Rather in Times Square
What in this shot of the CBS New Year's Eve broadcast is not real? Click here to see the digital insert  

January 25, 2000
Web posted at: 4:54 p.m. EST (2154 GMT)

From Paul Vercammen
CNN Entertainment News Correspondent

HOLLYWOOD (CNN) -- On the set of the CNN show "Showbiz Today," everything is real, from the anchors' backdrop to their hairdos. But some of what's appearing on TV these days you could never touch; it exists only on a computer.

Digitally inserted images have become a fact of life on television, loud complaints over CBS's recent digital imaging swap-out notwithstanding. On New Year's Eve, Dan Rather stood in front of Times Square during the evening news and for coverage of the start of 2000.

But the CBS network logo in the background was digitally added and blocked out rival NBC's Jumbotron advertising screen in Times Square. The swap was so smooth that if you were watching the Eye network that night, you would never have known the difference.

In fact, few viewers probably knew about the substitution until the New York Times reported recently that CBS had used digital technology to place its logo in a variety of locations, including the NBC Jumbotron blanket.

CBS defended the digital insert, saying, "Covering the Jumbotron was an aggressive move that is going to put some noses out of joint. People can disagree as to whether this is an appropriate use of technology."

From football games to '7 Days'

With the trend only likely to grow, digitally inserted images are raising concern all the way to the network level.

What isn't real on this baseball diamond? Click here to see the digital insert  

"We are heading in a lot of dangerous ways," says broadcast journalist Linda Ellerbee. "The Chinese character for danger is also for opportunity, so it's not necessarily bad. It's just that as journalists, I believe we have to pay particular attention here."

The technology is popping up all over television. There have been virtual inserts in football games, baseball games, and television shows, including the UPN show "7 Days."

Marketing consultant Barbara McMahon helped implement the virtual inserts on a "7 Days" rerun, changing the brands of toothpaste and mouthwash on a bathroom shelf to promote different companies. Her motto, she says: "Be unobtrusive."

"It's production-based marketing, but if it's not done respectfully, and tastefully, and matching the nature of what you're doing, I'm going to turn it off," McMahon says. "I'd be the first to turn it off, and so would the audience. So it won't work."

New way to raise ad revenue

Princeton Video Image of Lawrenceville, New Jersey creates inserts. The company says digital product placement gives advertisers the flexibility to sell different items.

Insiders say companies pay about the cost of commercial spot for a digital product insert.

"You could have a box of one kind of cereal one time and change it every time that show is run in syndication, or not have any cereal at all, for that matter," says Princeton Video Image's Paul Slagle.

television show
What couldn't this actor actually touch in this television scene? Click here to find the digital insert  

"Product placement is always going to be with us," says Phil Rosenthal, a TV critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. "It's just another way to bring in money.

And it's also used as a self-promotion tool. CBS "Early Show" liberally uses the digital signs in the background. All may be fair in morning programs and fictional shows, but most media watchers argue broadcast news organizations open themselves up to second-guessing by inserting images.

"What happens," says Michael Wolff, a media columnist for New York Magazine, "is that people say, well if you've changed that, what else have you changed? If you've manipulated that, what else have you manipulated?"

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UPN: '7 Days'
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