Promo push irks producers

Graffiti takes eyes away from shows, they say

Desperate to lure and keep viewers, network promo wizards have found a new place to spread their hype: inside other shows.

NBC has been the most aggressive with the practice. In recent weeks, the Peacock has started touting the premiere of shows such as “First Years” or “The Weakest Link” with so-called “billboards” that appear just after a program returns from a commercial break.

Net also uses the onscreen messages, which appear in the lower left-hand corner of viewers’ screens, to tell auds what show is coming up next or that the program a viewer is currently watching will be an original episode next week.

“We aren’t far from the Bloombergization of TV,” said “X-Files” exec producer Chris Carter, referring to biz news cabler Bloomberg TV, which splits its screen into sections.

While NBC has stepped up its onscreen messages a notch, it’s far from the only broadcaster plastering messages on top of its shows.

Part of that comes courtesy a Nielsen rule change. Until January, the ratings service would only recognize a channel position–not a show title–when evaluating Nielsen diary entries.

“If you watched ‘Friends’ but wrote that it was on KABC, they’d give the credit for viewing that half hour to KABC,” said John Miller, NBC’s promo and advertising prexy.

But Nielsen now allows viewers who use diaries to emphasize program names. As a result, most webs have started flashing the title of a show onscreen when that program comes back from a commercial break. Some nets, like NBC and Fox, animate those billboards — as well as their logos — to make them stand out even more.

All this onscreen promo graffiti — commonplace on cablers, but relatively new for major broadcasters — has raised eyebrows among some producers, who worry that viewer eyeballs could be drawn away from what’s going on in a given program.

Carter says he’s concerned that what started out as nets placing their logos on-screen will result in a never-ending line of intrusions.

“I still appreciate that Fox is not a more cluttered environment and that their approach is less intrusive (than other networks),” he said. “And I understand why networks are desperate to keep eyeballs; it helps to know what channel you’re watching.

“But the bugs are at war with the content, especially if the bug is animated.”

Miller, however, defends the Peacock’s billboards as a viewer service.

“Those are things cable has been doing for the last couple of years,” Miller said. “Cable has used it far more aggressively. To a large degree we don’t do much. It’s largely a viewer service. Occasionally we do it to highlight a premiere coming along, but we’re very selective.”

As for the creative community, “I’ve not heard one complaint from a producer,” he said. “And they’re not at all shy.” “We believe the viewer is far more accustomed to seeing material on the screen,” he said. “We would not do anything that we believed significantly damaged the viewing experience.”

ABC also uses “billboards” to denote which show viewers are currently watching–but stops short at promoting other series.

“We thought it was helpful letting viewers know what show they’re on,” said Alan Cohen, ABC’s exec vice president of marketing, advertising and promotion. “But we don’t find it’s the appropriate place to put promotional messages about other shows. It’s just too distracting from the current show you’re watching.”

All this promo madness started with that little “bug” at the corner of TV screens. Cable networks such as VH1 were early adopters of the bug, which is now ubiquitous on almost every channel, both broadcast and cable.

Bugs came about as cable systems began expanding beyond 30 channels. Hoping to catch the average channel surfer’s eye, cablers started stamping the screen with a clear logo, normally at the bottom right hand corner, to allow for instant identification.

The broadcast networks initially resisted the bug–until Fox broke the mold. The other networks quickly joined in. At first, those bugs were only quickly flashed after a commercial break; now they’re on all the time.

Then came the Peacock’s “NBC 2000,” a marketing campaign launched in the mid-’90s to hold on to surfers by scrunching down credits and adding other elements– such as a show’s final scene, or a short promo–on the other part of the screen. NBC and its network brethren also started eliminating ad breaks between shows, allowing for a seamless break in the hopes that viewers would stay tuned from one skein to another.

“That was a major change back then,” Miller said. “We continually look at minute-by-minute ratings for anything we can do.”

The recent surge in bottom-of-the-screen messages are descended from “crawls.” Crawls have been around for years alerting viewers to weather emergencies, or to remind viewers to stay tuned if the show they’re watching is running late.

Still, until recently the networks have been loathe to clutter their programs with marketing messages, though not entirely: Before it debuted “Dilbert,” UPN promoted the skein with animated vignettes at the bottom of the screen during shows such as “Star Trek: Voyager.”

‘I’m all for promotion,” said “Law & Order: SVU” exec producer Neil Baer. “The only complaint I would have, is sometimes, if you’re coming back in the latter half of a show, it may be distracting to see something unrolling across the screen. But I’m not sure it really bothers the viewers much.”

Indeed, producers seem resigned to the new clutter.

Dave Hackel, exec producer of CBS’ “Becker,” was initially shocked last season when the Eye began starting every program with a plug for its HDTV arrangement with Mitsubishi.

“The first time we saw it, we went, ‘Oooh, that’s big,’ ” he said. “But I know what they’re doing. It’s a 99-channel universe and they want people to know what they’re watching.”

Hackel also thinks viewers won’t be too distracted by what they see in the corner of their screens.

“Look, if the bug starts being more interesting than my program, then I better look at my program,” he said.

CBS marketing chief George Schweitzer says the Eye tries to balance the need to let viewers know what they’re watching against the integrity of watching the programs.

“You walk a fine line between giving program information, and … taking away from the viewing experience,” he said.

As for whether all these billboards and promos work, the jury’s still out. NBC’s recent promo blitz for “First Years,” which had the show’s title popping up during almost every NBC show, certainly didn’t work: The show’s initial outing Monday bombed in the ratings.

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