Visual Explorer: Introducing The Visual Channel Comparer

We are tremendously excited today to unveil a powerful new tool for visually comparing the parallel universes of television news: the Visual Explorer's Visual Channel Comparer. This prototype command line tool accepts a start/stop date range, a list of channels and a time step and displays a vertical grid showing the selected channels side-by-side over the given time period, making it possible to directly compare their respective coverage.

To install the tool:

apt-get -y install imagemagick
apt-get -y install parallel
chmod 755

It accepts the following parameters:

  • Start Date. The start point in YYYYMMDDHHMMSS format in the UTC timezone.
  • End Date. The end point in YYYYMMDDHHMMSS format in the UTC timezone.
  • Channel List. A comma-separated list of the channels to compare.
  • Thumbnail Dimensions. The width x height in pixels to display the thumbnails (height is auto-scaled).
  • Time Resolution. This must be a number that is a multiple of 4 and is the interval for the thumbnails. Setting to 4 means every row will represent 4 seconds of airtime, while setting to 60 means each row is one minute of airtime. This can be used to "zoom in" to display a smaller time period at high resolution for precise comparisons, while displaying longer time horizons at a coarser resolution.

For example, here is the comparison for CNN, MSNBC and Fox News from 5:00-5:15PM PDT on October 28, 2022 (midnight to 00:15 UTC on October 29th), the day Paul Pelosi was attacked at home, at 60 second resolution (each row is one minute apart):

time ./ 20221029000000 20221029001500 CNN,MSNBC,FOXNEWS 250x150 60

This outputs the following result:

You can see that CNN and MSNBC spend those 15 minutes covering the Pelosi attack, while Fox News' Tucker Carlson instead covers Elon Musk's Twitter takeover.

What about those same 15 minutes, but at 4 second resolution and adding the BBC?

time ./ 20221029000000 20221029001500 CNN,MSNBC,FOXNEWS,BBCNEWS 250x150 4

This outputs the following result:

At this much finer temporal resolution, you can see how much of CNN and MSNBC's coverage of the Pelosi story is made up of commentary, with CNN leveraging a panel format for part of its coverage and MSNBC sticking largely to single interviews. BBC News offers the most diverse coverage of the four channels, mixing Iran, Pelosi, Twitter, Ukraine, Brazil, Pakistan and Twitter again all in the same 15 minutes.

What if we want to see a two-hour window instead of just 15 minutes? Using the same command, but just extending the End Date and again using 60 second resolution:

time ./ 20221029000000 20221029020000 CNN,MSNBC,FOXNEWS,BBCNEWS 250x150 60

This outputs the following result:

Note that the images are slightly different from the original 60 second comparison that was just for the 15 minute window. This is because the original comparison did not include BBC News. The comparison tool adjusts the start time slightly to align all of the selected channels so may sometimes vary slightly.

Note that this is an extremely experimental tool. At this time it will error if there are any gaps in any of the channels. If you receive errors about pixels or memory from ImageMagick, you should reduce the time span and/or resolution to reduce the size of the final image grid produced.

We are tremendously excited about the kinds of new comparative analyses this tool will make possible!