Net vex with ad fads

Viewer's patience wears thin for marketing tactics

The Big Six seem to have found a new hobby: Annoying the hell out of their loyal viewers.

Frightened by ever-dwindling audiences, the broadcast nets have started employing a number of scheduling tricks and promotional gimmicks, all with the goal of getting people to watch more network TV. But rather than make viewers want to stick around, some industry insiders believe the shenanigans are turning viewers off — and causing auds to turn on their DVD players, computers and PlayStation 2 machines.

Among the most offensive stunts:

So-called ‘swipes’ — the promotional graphics that pop up in the lower third of screens to promote upcoming shows — have grown larger and more omnipresent on many networks this season. What began as a simple, discreet one-line graphic telling viewers what they’re watching (or what’s on next) has morphed into elaborate animated mini-ads.

On NBC, for example, viewers watching the now-dead “Father of the Pride” found their attention divided between Jeffrey Katzenberg’s animated lions and the animated mini-Matt LeBlancs the Peacock used to hype “Joey.” What’s more, NBC now runs swipes at the start and near the end of each act in a show, touting as many as four different projects within a few seconds.

Producers of Fox’s “The Simpsons” and “King of the Hill” also have loudly griped to Fox about the swipes.

Many shows no longer start or end when they’re supposed to.

Fans who taped ABC’s hit drama “Lost” early in the season found themselves missing key moments because the Alphabet decided to have the show end at 9:01 p.m., screwing up VCRs and TiVos across America. NBC’s “super size” mania meant that “The Apprentice” didn’t air in its regular 9 p.m. Thursday slot until a few episodes into its second season.

Repeats are no longer for summer or holiday seasons. CBS and NBC now scatter encores of their crime drama franchises around their skeds like confetti, thus taking less chances on original fare.

Because of the hyper-competitive environment, nets are less patient than ever. Shows get little time to find an audience, resulting in timeslot shifts and early cancellations that inevitably annoy millions of viewers. NBC, for example, killed its reality skein “Last Comic Standing” one week before the show’s winner was set to be announced — a move that prompted host Jay Mohr to denounce the Peacock on his Web site.

“There are things we do that are detrimental to a viewer’s enjoyment of a show, and it makes us look cheesy and cheap when we overdo it,” says one top veteran program exec. “We sometimes assume viewers are our little monkeys that will jump at whatever we do, and that’s not the case.”

Network defenders rightly point out that basic cable actually originated many of the gimmicks now driving auds batty. And the swipes used on nets like MTV or Food Network make the Big Six promos look tame.

What’s more, while tricks like irregular start times may be annoying, “That’s the price of free TV,” one web exec notes.

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