Networks in Tiff over Digital Background Alteration

A war of words has broken out between television networks NBC and CBS over the use of digital effects that altered the background during CBS coverage of New Year's Eve festivities in New York's Times Square. "Shocked and outraged" is one of the milder phrases used by NBC executives over the use of digital effects by CBS technicians to block a huge NBC video sign visible behind newsman Dan Rather during the broadcast. A CBS logo was inserted in its place.

Most television viewers and movie fans are accustomed to the use of such effects in fictional programs, but newscasts—which the New Year's coverage certainly was—have traditionally been assumed to be free of such manipulation. One of the unspoken rules of television journalism is that news cameras are supposed to offer an unembellished view of reality. Dan Rather has apologized for taking part in the stunt, saying he did not realize that it might compromise his professional integrity.

NBC is taking the affair seriously, and may look into legal action, according to the New York Times. "We have initiated a dialogue at the highest level with CBS News to ensure this practice is short-lived," said Dave Anderson, vice president at NBC's cable news network, CNBC. "We are shocked and outraged that CBS News used digital imagery to alter and block out images in public places."

CBS is defending the practice, which it has used to digitally insert its logo into other outdoor scenes, especially those from Central Park on The Early Show. CBS News president Andrew Heyward called it "part of the evolution of graphics. They get more and more sophisticated . . . I think reasonable people can disagree as to whether it is an appropriate use of video technology." As the old adage warns, believe none of what you hear and little of what you see.