Saturday, April 23, 2016

Countdown to Counting Down

NASA uses them for launching thundering rockets into outer space. Basketball, football and hockey all use them to track the time remaining to the end of the game when the cheering can begin. And the MTA uses them at more and more subway stations to let you know when the next train is due to arrive. By and large, countdown clocks are welcome in all of the above situations, telling you when to plug your ears, when to plug your ears, and come to think of it, when to plug your ears.  

The idea is to give you and all concerned fair warning about some impending event or punctuation point that warrants you to take some specific action, be it New Year's Eve or the beginning of a movie. And that's generally a good thing. Time is a precious commodity, and whether you have a specific set of steps to achieve a goal, are competing for a championship or just want to know how late you will be to work, it helps to know how the clock will play a part. After all, nobody like to waste time unless it's on a beach with a drink that has an umbrella in it.

So when CNN hit upon the idea to add a countdown clock on the screen to show the time before the polls closed or the State of the Union message, it wasn't a bad idea. It gave those who were interested in such things a way to plan their time so that they could focus on other items of interest until events warranted their attention. Ten minutes to go? Plenty of time to get a drink and some pretzels. Ten seconds to go? Better find the clicker and turn up the volume.

But anything worth doing is worth overdoing. And CNN has gone completely wacky for countdowns. To be fair, they are not alone, nor did they invent the idea. Other news outlets have similar displays, ticking down the hours, minutes and seconds to everything from government shutdowns to the beginning of a Presidential Town Hall. And the web site TMZ famously had a countdown clock that showed how many days it was until Kendall Jenner reached 18 years old. But that's REALLY important, so it can be forgiven.

At CNN, they have made the call that virtually every event is countdown-worthy. The night before the New Hampshire primary they ran a countdown clock to the date. Then on the morning of the primary, they ran a countdown clock to the start of their coverage at 4pm. At 4pm, they ran a countdown clock to when the first exit polls would come in at 5pm. At 5pm, they ran a countdown clock to when the first polls would close at 7pm. At 7pm, they ran a countdown clock to when all the polls would close at 8pm. You half expected them to then run a countdown clock to the start of the next primary in South Carolina. Too much? As Mark Knoller of CBS News tweeted "Honey - can you check the debate countdown clock? Otherwise how will we know when it's 830pm/ET Tuesday. If only we had personal timepieces."

On top of that, what are they counting down to? For the March 10 Republican Debate, the clock drum-rolled down to 8:30PM. Then – cymbal crash, please – you would think the debate would start. Puh-lease. It was actually counting down to the pre-debate analysis and setup, a full 30 minutes before the first Obama-bashing got under way. Promotion? Misdirection? Lying? As CNN Washington Bureau chief San Feist put it, "Did we start the debate at exactly 8:30? That depends on your definition of when we started the debate." Or as the other Clinton put it more famously, it all depends on what your definition of "is" is.

At least these were all counting down to real things. Back in 2013, the network put up an asteroid countdown clock, counting down to the exact second that a particular space rock would – would what? Hit us? Cause massive tidal waves? Make the sky go dark? No, it counted down to the exact moment when it would pass within 3.6 million miles of earth. Or as Jake Tapper called it, "Near Armageddon." Hardly, Jake. But it will be back in about two centuries. And so, start the clock.


Marc Wollin of Bedford watches too much cable news. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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