Why Are Copyrighted Dates on Movies and TV Shows Written in Roman Numerals?


A Date by Any Other Number

Included in David Feldman’ s book Imponderables: The Solutions to the Mysteries of Life, is this question: “Why are copyrighted dates on movies and television shows written in Roman numerals?” (p. 214)

The general consensus is the “deception theory” – to “make it difficult for viewers to determine exactly how old the show is,” the reason being the older the date the “staler” the material may seem to the audience. Filmmakers don’t like that, it seems. (In my humble opinion, though, a good story is timeless.) Then there’s the “inertia theory”: That’s just the way it’s always been done.

roman numerals
Roman numerals are easy to see when they don’t move and they are fun to decipher.

I’m pretty good at reading Roman numerals. Even one of my clocks has them, with liberties taken with the number IV; it’s shown as IIII to balance the VIII on the opposite side. Anyway, except for my love for most things traditional, I really don’t care if numbers are depicted as Roman or Arabic on movie and television screens. I do care that I am able to see them at all, however.

The Evelyn Wood TV Speed Reading Test

Have you noticed how fast the credits are run at the end of TV shows these days? This goes for movies shown on TV, too. The credits roll by (or up) so fast my eyeballs feel like they have road rash. Even the people at PBS are guilty of these express lane credits – and PBS doesn’t even have commercials crowding out air time.

Now, I grew up watching movies and television and have become rather credit conscious as a result. If there’s an actor I particularly like, even (or sometimes especially) if it’s an animal, I want to be able to find his name in the cast of characters. Sometimes locations intrigue me and I’d like to know where a TV show or movie was shot. Think of it this way: I’d be helping the local economy by spending my money there should I decide to visit. The problem is, I need to know where I’m going first. And music: That’s another way I could contribute to the economy, buying CDs. Some of the most magnificent music is composed for film. Miklos Rozsa’s score for Ben-Hur is a prime example.

Of particular interest to me, though, is the writing, the script. As a word lover and writer I really appreciate great dialogue, although that’s harder to come by in today’s films where cursing and insults make up most what actors blurt, scream, and mumble. I’d like to think there are scriptwriters out there with IQs higher than the four-letter words that pass for writing these days. If they do exist, who are they? You’ll never know if you rely on the high velocity credit rolls. Not even Superman flies that fast.

Cash ‘n’ Dash

Of course, the frenzied rush to make more and more money is the culprit in all this. Consequently, more and more commercials are being squeezed into television programming today. In fact, there are times when so many ads are run during a commercial break that I forget what program I’ve been watching by the time it comes back on again. And that can be a real problem for those viewers with short-term memory issues. (Not that I admit to this myself, mind you.)

Another thing: It’s bad enough we have credits that zoom by like the Millennium Falcon on warp speed. Often they end up on split screen (scrunched into one third the space, making them even harder to see) as the next program with its opening credits gets underway at normal speed. So now we have one eye tracking microscopic credits on speed dial on the right side of the screen while the other tries focusing on the credit roll doing the legal speed limit on the left. Our bodies just weren’t designed to process this much technology at one time.

And the news programming isn’t much better. There you have a split screen again with someone talking on one side while his credentials or talking points are listed on the other. And at the same time there are news headlines or even entire stories crawling across the bottom as “news tickers,” thus forcing us to read both horizontally and vertically at the same time. Sensory overload on overdrive! It just ain’t natural! All that’s missing is some scratch-and-sniff to whack the rest of our senses.

Hit the Brakes!

It’s all just too much, too fast. So, throttle back, all you control booth speed freaks, ad men, and TV network programmers. For one thing, your hard-working fellow production crews on all those TV and movie sets will appreciate it, knowing they’re getting credit where credit is due, the way God intended. Besides, by then the rest of us will have been able to catch our breath and recalibrate our eyeballs.

Otherwise, if things continue as they are, the consequences could be frightful. Current high-speed credit rolls could cause our bodies to become so overheated by all this sensory exertion we could literally blow our fuses, flame out, and end up as piles of cinders in our La-Z-Boys!

Holy smoke! I think I’ve just discovered the source of spontaneous human combustion!

*New York: William Morrow, 1987.