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Recently, television-related newsgroups on the Internet have begun tackling the problem of "bugs" and other identifying images that are static in nature. Many participants in these groups have asked, will watching programs, channels, and networks with these images cause damage to a viewer's television? As an example of this, several participants brought up The National Network (TNN)'s airing of Star Trek, since it keeps a massive lower third image on the screen throughout the movie and users of projection sets (especially 4:3 HD sets) have been warned by their respective manufacturers about the potential for projection tube burn-in.

If a TV's warranty information says that pattern burns constitute misuse and are not covered under the warranty, could you somehow be liable for a viewer's TV? From a legal perspective, anyone can sue anyone else for any reason. It's up to the courts to determine if the reason is valid and to determine if there is any guilt on the part of the defendant. Can a viewer sue you for damages to his TV? Yes. Can a group of viewers request class status and sue you for damages in a class action suit? Yes. Will you lose? That's a good question.

The issue is simple: while the manufacturer has given itself an out with its warranty statement, who is to blame for any burn-in? The viewer has elected to watch a program, and he or she knew that pattern burn was a potential problem. The viewer has elected to ignore the manufacturer's warning and watch your programming regardless. But the viewer is a consumer. A consumer who is not in the television industry doesn't have a clear understanding of technical issues such as burn-in and phosphors and the like.

You, on the other hand, are in the television industry. You do have a clear understanding of technical issues such as burn-in and phosphors and the like. You know (or your engineers know) that pattern burn-in is a potential problem. You also know that the odds of a viewer watching your signal long enough and exclusively enough for burn-in to occur is not that likely. Your biggest pattern burn-in concern is probably the television sitting in your reception area that is always tuned to your channel. So there is some liability here if your signal is always on a viewer's TV.

If that TV in your reception area does, in fact, have a pattern burn-in problem, then the liability increases—not only did you know about the potential for pattern burn-in, but you experienced the problem yourself, on your own TV. Worse, you probably didn't change your on-air operations to prevent the same thing from occurring on a consumer's TV set.

In a court of law, the plaintiff (your viewer) will try to prove (and successfully so) that you knowingly caused a signal to be transmitted that was detrimental to viewers' TV sets. The viewer's liability having been warned about pattern burn-in by the manufacturer versus your liability as a television industry professional will be weighed. More than likely, since you never warned the consumer about the potential of pattern burn-in from your TV set and you continued the practice, odds are that a jury or a judge will find in favor of the plaintiff (that means you would lose).

Before you think "this could never happen to me and my station or network," it's best to remember the person who successfully sued McDonald's because she got burned when she spilled the restaurant's coffee on herself. The fast-food chain ended up having to pay big bucks for serving coffee that was "too hot." Stranger things have happened.