There's always some new technology in editing, graphics, and on-air playback to make on-air promos better, faster, and more effective. But, for all the power offered by a $100,000 editing system, the most important technology is the $2 remote control.
More than ever, viewers can easily bounce around a host of channels. The challenge for network promo departments is simple: Make them stay.
Stations and cable networks routinely use new tricks to hype what's next. Some networks squeeze and speed up movie credits to save time and space for promotion. Others use "snypes," which briefly flash the name of a program coming soon. But any tactic, if overdone, can alienate the audience.
Grabbing and keeping viewers is what the Promax&BDA conference, taking place June 23-25 in New York, is all about. Conference attendees are divided between professionals who produce dramatic-series spots and those who work in the nitty-gritty of news production. For both groups, new tools and ideas are keeping viewer's minds on content—and not the remote control.
INNOVATION AT HBO
We really try to think of interesting ideas and push ourselves," says Marc Rosenberg, HBO vice president, brand imaging.
HBO's image spots for its Sunday- night lineup have become mini-events themselves. They began last year with a spot called "Cast Party," in which the camera panned through a room where characters from all of HBO's original series were talking and drinking together. Thanks to the use of what's called "compositing technology," characters were lifted out of their own series and placed into situations with those from others. (The process, called rotoscoping, is done with the help of Adobe After Effects software.)
"We have the freedom to have fun with the spots because we don't have to establish The Sopranos, Sex and the City, or Oz," says Rosenberg. They debuted with a splash: "People were reading and talking about them, and they get [the spots] right away."
Now the spots are more ambitious and take about a month to complete. The process starts with the screening of episodes from different series for the first half of a conversation: a quick line, a quip, or just a facial expression. Then the real work begins: the search for a complementary line from a different series. "It's easy to find 20 Larry David lines," says Rosenberg. "It's harder to find something involving an obscure character from Carnival."
There's an added complexity. Body positions and eyelines need to at least give the impression that the characters could be sharing a conversation. "Even when we have a new show like Deadwood, we mix it in," says Rosenberg. "It doesn't matter if you intimately know these characters, because someday you will—that's kind of our implicit message."
AND NOW THE NEWS
News promotion comes in two flavors. There's the topical spot, which typically will air only once or be used for a short period—such as for a specific news story or special news series. Then there's the image shot, establishing the anchor team or individual reporters. Because image shots require a deeper, more film-like look, stations often use outside production and post-production facilities.
Dave Folsom of Raycom Media, however, says that could be changing. For its image campaign, Raycom-owned WAFF Birmingham, Ala., shot videotape at 24 frames per second, giving it a film look without the expense of an outside film-based production unit. The station won an Emmy and saved a lot of money at the same time. Group-wide centralized graphics facilities are also cutting down on out-of-house spending.
"There are cost savings, and also the group has ownership of the elements so the station can repurpose them," says Folsom. "We literally save millions of dollars each year." Raycom Media's centralized facility is based at KOLD Tucson, Ariz.
Repurposing of elements can come in handy for news promos. It not only stretches the value of the graphic element but can also supply a constant thread for a number of promos related to a similar topic. If those elements are created out-of-house, stations pay to reuse them. It gets expensive.
When it comes to national cable news networks, the news-team promo is replaced with image spots focused on talent. And as at HBO, the challenge is innovation. CNN strives to give viewers a sense of the importance of a night of Larry King or Paula Zahn, and the promos go through the work-intensive, traditional post-production process with tools like Avid Symphony and Media Composer nonlinear editing systems.
Other types of CNN spots include daily topical promos and in-program promos. They also take the form of on-air commercials, in-program lower-third graphics, and ticker items.
"They're all effective on different levels," says Kristine-Ellis Petrik, director, CNN program promotion. But the levels are fairly logical: Viewers watch breaking-news promos with more intensity than generic promos. Both types, though, are important.
CNN's daily topical spots are pretty much straight editing cuts with dropped-in graphics; the image spots often involve compositing. CNN uses Avid's Media Composer, DS Nitris, and Apple's Final Cut Pro.
THE DISCOVERY WAY
Discovery's external post-production facility of choice is Viewpoint Creative in Boston.
Mary Claire, Discovery Networks vice president and marketing and creative director, says the networks are very clip-driven because of the documentary nature of much of the programming. But that doesn't mean they aren't fun.
Promos for last year's documentary on Nefertiti zoomed a camera down the halls of a museum to a bust that flashed to life before the viewer's eyes. It wasn't the cheapest way to promote the show, but it was highly effective.
"If we're putting money behind a series or special," says Claire, "we want the best pair of shoes."
Sometimes that involves using Discreet Flame or other high-end 3D compositing tools. If the project does go out-of-house, the key is to make sure Claire and the rest of the marketing team can stay on top of the creative process. That's one of the reasons she works with Viewpoint Creative: She can weigh in at any point in the production process. "You want to make sure it doesn't get too far in the process without checking in," she says.
In-house work at Discovery focuses on "aprisas," Discovery's name for snypes. Discovery has built a template for the graphic bubble that pops up on the screen twice an hour or more, depending on the content. Claire says Mondays are big for aprisas, because the programs share a similar theme and that makes it easy to hook viewers for the night.
Matt Allard, Avid senior product manager, says the template-building approach taken by Discovery is a trend in promos, allowing less technical personnel like producers and reporters to modify the text or clips. Avid's Nitris system, for example, can create a preset visual look or style using graphics built by Photoshop experts and then import the clips complete with animations. He says, "The network gets a consistent look and feel across its programming."
Dave Schliefer, director of broadcast and workgroups at Avid, says his company's NewsCutter Adrenaline FX nonlinear editing system is used to create news promos as well as the newscast.
"It opened up all the functionality found in the Avid Media Composer, with some differences," he explains. "NewsCutter and Composer have parity from a feature point of view, and then there is Nitris DS, which has found acceptance in the broadcast community." NBC uses 10 Nitris systems for on-air graphics for its network news programs.
Installations based on Avid editing systems have traditionally been a mix of NewsCutters and Composers, with the latter providing the compositing technology that enables promo creation. That one-two punch led Thomson Grass Valley to sign a deal with Apple so that it could offer a counterpunch of similar weight.
"Final Cut Pro is a strong solution, and it's not expensive," says Eric DuFosse, Thomson Grass Valley director of servers and digital news production. "We integrated it into our NewsEdit workflow so the two packages can share material."
AT ESPN, SIMPLICITY RULES
Sometimes, processing speed counts. Cheryl DiCarlo, ESPN writer and producer, and Wayne Stevenson, ESPN editor, crank out promos at a rate that can sometimes resemble a NASCAR race.
"We don't get months to sit around and agonize over cuts and stuff," says DiCarlo. "It's just do it and move on."
The tool that makes that possible is Discreet's Smoke, a system built on Silicon Graphics high-power computers. "It has both a really strong editor and an incredibly powerful effects toolset," says Stevenson.
Smoke's processing speed gives Stevenson and DiCarlo a steroids-like edge to get things done faster and more easily than otherwise possible. "I can't let this render a graphic overnight," says Stevenson. "It has to make it to air. So the processor rips through the stuff and renders it in full resolution in a few minutes."
DiCarlo says she and Stevenson will story-board out an idea and then bring it to life with Smoke.
It's then passed off to the audio department, where DigiDesign ProTools is used. "Sound design is a big part of what we do," says DiCarlo. "We're constantly using game action, and, if you have a monster dunk, why not use a crazy sound that draws attention? We're not news, we're sports entertainment. So anything we can do, including sound design, adds to the product."
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