Skip to main content

In Promos, New Ways toMake You 'Stop, Look, Listen'

Gone are the days when all a TV show promo had to be was a collection of clips knit cleverly together, along with a message telling everyone what day and time to tune in.

Today, a promo has to convince viewers to stop fast-forwarding through commercials, engage with an audience, communicate the brand of both the show and the network and, often, do all of this while integrating an advertiser. Plus, promos still have to tell viewers when and where to watch—not that it matters quite as much in the anytime-viewing world. It’s all part and parcel of the evolution of the promo form in its attempt to gain eyeballs and even dollars—with music often subtly playing an integral part in getting the message across.

These are the trends on the minds of attendees heading to the PromaxBDA conference in Los Angeles this week.

“Everything is designed to try to make the [commercial and promo] break disappear now,” says Jeff Boortz, president of Be the Creative Source. “After viewers tune back in to see the snippet of content—people call them podbusters— they figure they are close enough to the end of the pod to watch the rest of the break linearly. Everyone is doing it. DVRs are so widespread now that programmers had to come up with something.”

On reality-competition series Top Chef, Bravo often will throw a behind-the-scenes moment into the middle of a commercial pod that encourages viewers to return to the show. Those moments might also include a sponsor, if only through quick pans of the surrounding kitchen equipment.

The Biggest Loser does that a lot,” says Joel Pilger, president and founder of Denver-based Impossible TV. “They will put a promo in the middle of the break that looks like you are back, but it’s really a recap of what’s happened so far. Still, as a viewer you say, ‘There’s something there that I need to see. I need to hit pause and watch that.’”

Along those lines, after Discovery’s ad sales unit cut a deal with Universal Studios, Impossible TV created a clever spot that integrated Universal’s theatrical film Despicable Me with Discovery’s hit show Deadliest Catch. In the spot, the animated minions from the film became workers on Captain Keith’s Alaskan fishing boat.

“Advertisers are asking, ‘How can I get closer to the talent, to this brand? How can I get my product or service wrapped up in this thing?’” says Steve Urbano, VP of Impossible TV. “They are trying to establish a place where their product is being embraced and connected with a show and a network. It’s a powerful way to get viewers to pay attention to a product.”

“Networks are starting to use promo space to generate revenue,” says Boortz. “It’s still a fairly new phenomenon, but it’s getting more sophisticated every month.”

Networks also are interested in longer-form promos that tell stories on their own because promos—as catchy, short-form videos—have a long afterlife on the Internet.

“We definitely are doing more stuff for the Internet that ends up on social media,” says Chris Stonich, executive VP/creative director for Lussier Productions. “We call it ‘promotainment.’”

Stonich and Lussier recently cut a three-minute-long promo for ABC’s Revenge that explained the show’s set-up and played almost like a tiny movie, with one of the show’s characters narrating a video that tells the story of the first season.

“More promos are being produced and appearing in more media,” says Ron Mendelsohn, president and CEO of Megatrax. “All of the networks have their Websites, and promos are running on Hulu, YouTube, Vimeo. Promos are alive and well all over the Internet.”

Those promos can also have an immediate effect on traffic, as more viewers demand content whenever they want it.

“As more performances of TV shift online, it’s natural for people to click on a promo and then click over to Hulu or to watch the actual show,” says Mendelsohn. “It’s a very seamless thing. It’s not like years ago when you ran a TV promo and told viewers to watch the show on Sunday night on ABC and then they had to wait four days to do that.”

That afterlife on the Internet is allowing promos to become more like movie trailers than the 15-second tune-in spots of yesteryear.

“On the Internet, the norm is to run at least oneand- a-half to two minutes,” says Mendelsohn. “Promos are becoming even more of an art form now. The lines are blurring.”

Promos not only are becoming longer, they are also becoming slower.

“Everyone in the industry is trying to slow down the speeds at which promos are cut by about 20 to 50 percent,” says Joe Tamanini, president of Studio City, which cuts a high volume of promos, including lots of spots for daytime shows including Anderson and Live! With Kelly.

“It used to be that you would use a really high-energy piece of music and tons of fast cuts to try to show all of this great material,” Tamanini says. “It was very rapid-fire, very cutty. And at the time it was very cool. But now if you take that fast promo and run it through the DVR, nothing lands with the viewer.”

“You have to find a way to break through the white noise that is in and of itself advertising on television,” Tamanini continues. “Viewers are getting messages thrown at them all the time. You have to slow down, tell a clear and concise story and stop trying to be so goddamn clever. You don’t want to be so clever that you lose people.”

Studio City just developed, shot and cut more than 100 promos for the upcoming Summer Olympics, all of which will air in local markets, featuring athletes who come from those markets.

“What I think is so revolutionary and cutting- edge about [the promos] is that we’re able to be very micro-focused on the different regions to make the spots,” says Tamanini. “Hopefully, that will give people in those markets good reason to watch the Games.”

It may not be as obvious, but music plays almost as big a part in telling a promotional story as video. Like almost everyone in the TV business, music and sound design companies have to do less with more, re-engineering library tracks to make them sound like originals and submitting first drafts that look and sound like ready-to-broadcast projects.

“Using sound design and musical augmentation, we can make an existing track sound like it’s been scored to match the campaign or the goal for which the promo campaign is looking,” says Ted Gannon, senior composer, sound designer and mixer for New York-based sound and mixing company Super Exploder, which works in tandem with sister companies Northern Lights, Bodega and Mr. Wonderful.

Like the promos themselves, the accompanying music has to send the message that the network and the series wants to send. Super Exploder and its sister companies just collaborated on USA Network’s promotional campaign “The Boys of Burn,” and other spots, for the sixth season of Burn Notice, which returns to the network June 14.

In the spots, the music consists of mostly low-toned thrumming that conveys action and intensity, perfect both for Burn Notice’s and USA’s brands.

“There are a few marks that we had to hit on all of those promos,” says Gannon. “Burn Notice is not James Bond, but it does have a contemporary spy feel. The music has to be sexy, and the tempo has to be quick and reflect both the show and the network.”

Music companies also have had to design Websites and create other mechanisms so they can deliver product to clients on a minute-byminute basis.

“We just stopped pressing CDs this year in the U.S., and all of our music is served over the Internet via our new Website, or a customized hard drive,” says Mendelsohn, adding that it took Megatrax three years to develop the site. “It’s all completely searchable online. We are offering more and more tools to help our clients quickly find what they want,” which includes music directors who clients can call up and get help to quickly ! nd the tracks they seek.

Even with all of the technological advances, some things never change. Composers and sound designers still prefer to work with live musicians and instruments whenever they can, even though almost all instruments can be reproduced electronically.

“When you’ve got the mind-set, skill set and creative ideas that four to five people will bring to the table, it can be magic,” says Randy Hart, creative director of AirCast, Megatrax’s custom division. “Little seeds of ideas can really take on lives of their own.”

Live might be better, but technology allows companies to more easily incorporate live tracks into promos. In a pinch, voice-over artists and musicians can re-record tracks from their in-home studio and deliver them electronically within the hour. In the past, re-recording would require companies to schedule new time with artists, and they would have to come into the studio to record.

Whether it’s performed electronically or live, promo music doesn’t have long to catch a viewer’s attention.

“Promo music has always been about being really catchy or really hooky,” says Mendelsohn. “You need to catch someone in the first three to five seconds. That’s one of the formulas for writing good promo music—you need to catch someone right from the beginning.”

Adds Hart: “Whenever you deliver a piece to a client, you want it to have so much soul that it stands on its own and speaks with personality.”

E-mail comments to and follow her on Twitter: @PaigeA

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.