Pop-up Promos Drive Industry Crazy

Isn't Donald Trump's head swelled up enough? Obviously, NBC doesn't think so. To hawk Trump bobblehead dolls on the NBC Web site, the network stuck an animated mini-Donald on the bottom of the screen twice during last week's episode of The Apprentice.

The two in-program promo spots ran for five seconds each, and in the first five days after the ads aired, NBC sold $80,000 worth of the dolls.

For networks, this may be one way to fight an ad-zapping TiVo world. In-program promos—or snipes—are becoming increasingly sophisticated, using CGI animation and video clips. And their frequency is expanding. NBC is the biggest culprit, averaging the most-in-program promos of all the broadcast networks: nine in three hours of prime time. ABC and Fox average four pop-ups during prime time, reports PhaseOne Communications.

Broadcast and cable networks rely on snipes to promote shows and sell their merchandise, much to the chagrin of some TV producers. Clutter-adverse advertisers also cry foul, saying the snipes detract from viewers' appreciation of commercials.

“It's another hurdle for the advertisers,” says Peter Butchen, SVP, group director, national television, Initiative Media. “It's one thing to have a little bug telling you which network you're watching, but it's out of control on some networks.”

On cable, FX and ESPN are notorious for their elaborate snipes. In October, Food Network upped the ante. It started airing two snipes, 20 seconds in each segment of prime time. The first is a video clip of the next show, the second plugs merchandise or pitches a future show. The video snipes are a boon to Food Network, which struggles to keep viewers for long periods, since its programming is divided into bite-sized segments rather than narrative stories.

Food Network runs 35 new snipes per week, all thanks to the Pinnacle DekoCast character generator, which is triggered to play back computer-generated graphics and video at preset times.

Comedy Central has taken the same approach, but it relies on a snazzier Pinnacle system, the $35,000 Power Promo, which creates less snipes for greater usage. Power Promo builds the video portion of the snipe once, then drops in the appropriate information. The system solves the “now, next, later” dilemma by letting programmers change titles, graphics, spellings or dates on individual snipes without involving several people in master control, says Jay Wasack, Pinnacle DekoCast's business manager. “The Power Promo means savings and flexibility,” he adds.

Now Food Network is considering souping up its snipes for their January Iron Chef America series, with names of the advertiser sponsoring the shows. “Once you've crossed that line of interrupting a program for a message, why not use it as aggressively as you possibly can?” asks Michael Smith, Food Network's VP of on-air strategy and creative services.

The benefit to the networks is clear, but what about the audience? Based on focus group research, NBC estimates 20% of viewers find the snipes off-putting. During the Summer Olympics, NBC used snipes as navigational tools to direct viewers to other coverage. But when the strategy was employed in scripted and reality shows this season, airing two promos in each program rather than one, producers complained they interrupted the flow of content.

“The Olympics stories are fast, but when the stories are more methodical in a scripted show, [snipes] can be distracting,” admits John Miller, Chief Marketing Officer for the NBC Universal Television Group.

So NBC is voluntarily pulling back on mid-show snipes. It aired just one bobblehead promo near the beginning of the three-hour Apprentice finale. “It's a self-policing kind of thing,” Miller says. “There's always an internal debate about how much are you informing and how much are you detracting from the viewers' enjoyment.”

Initiative's Butchen is clear: “I'm watching the bug, not the show. After a while, people say, 'I'm going to turn the channel.' It's bad for everyone in the long run.”