A Very Special Trend in Network Promos

If the expanding TV universe means hundreds of channels, then it also necessitates tens of thousands of promos every year—a glut of video lapel-grabbing that industry professionals suspect is losing its ability to capture the attention of jaded viewers. The response in some quarters where network promos are hatched: Cut the clichés, tamp down the hype and find new ways of piquing audience interest.

At CNN, words that had been staples of the network's promotion of its news operation—words like “resources,” “coverage,” “perspective” and “insight”—have outlived their usefulness, says Scot Safon, senior VP, marketing and on-air promotions. “You have to say those things in a way that speaks directly to the viewer. No viewer uses words like 'resources' when they're telling a friend why they watch CNN.”

NBC is also moving on from hype it once embraced. “You have no credibility if every episode is special or the one you must see,” says Senior VP for On-Air Advertising Jim Vescera. “We still do 'Must See TV,' but we've refined the message and treat that audience intelligently.”

But that doesn't mean “must see” has morphed into take-it-or-leave it; if anything, the impulse to try new approaches to promos is driven by an urgency that is greater than ever. An effective promo “needs to give the viewer a real strong reason to tune in because they have so many choices,” says Vescera. “It's easy to do a promo that doesn't give the viewer a motivating factor.”

Luckily, interest in overhauling the TV hype machine arrives at a time when hardware makes it easier than ever to produce promotional spots with arresting graphics and a quick turnaround time that can make them seem as fresh as the shows they're promoting. In the past, the process of making promos was so time-consuming and labor-intensive that nimble, creative thinking lost out to the urge just to get the thing out the door.

How to Hype the Missing Chappelle?

A prime example of the new promo culture is Comedy Central, which suffered in the 1990s from a lack of lightning-rod shows but has flourished more recently with shows like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Chappelle's Show and Reno 911!. With the help of effective branding, the network has turned the likes of Jon Stewart and Dave Chappelle into household names and, in turn, discovered new revenue streams in DVDs and books.

Building those household names, though, involves more than simply scheduling a show and blasting out hundreds of promos for it every week. Comedy Central works closely on its spots with the producers of the programs it airs, making sure the tone and message are on point. The work is greatly facilitated by an Avid DS editing system and Adobe After Effects, which are used by network graphics and editing teams to work on 30-100 promos at any one time. Says Kendrick Reid, Comedy Central VP, on-air design, “Between the Avid system and After Effects, we can do everything.”

Comedy Central programs are ripe for promos that, in a matter of seconds, can offend and attract at the same time. Bob Pederson, Comedy Central VP, on-air creative, says that's fine: If a promo doesn't offend someone, the odds are that it isn't doing its job, since the network believes its viewers consider themselves edgier and hipper than mainstream audiences.

And the promos, given the timeliness of The Daily Show and South Park, need to be turned around quickly. “We usually get a five-second clip from South Park on Monday for a program that debuts on Wednesday,” says Pederson. “Then we have to get that promo on-air Monday night.”

Comedy Central faced an unusual challenge last month when Dave Chappelle failed to show up to begin the third season of Chappelle's Show. How do you hype something that doesn't exist? “There was no place to hide and pretend something wasn't going on with the Chappelle show. So to pretend it wasn't happening was something we couldn't do,” says Peter Risafi, Comedy Central senior VP, on-air promotions and off-air creative. Instead of ignoring the situation, the network embraced it, creating a promo that was nothing more than a shot of an answering machine, with Comedy Central leaving messages for its AWOL star that had the desperation of a jilted lover.

Of course, Comedy Central has the luxury of making promos with just one goal in mind: make viewers laugh. The quick turnaround for promos helps in that task, but it's not essential, the way it is at CNN. For a major story, such as the death of Pope John Paul II or the verdict in the Michael Jackson child-molestation case, CNN will build three or four promos that vary in length and can have voiceovers added as the news story develops. “One of the challenges,” Safon says, “is often figuring what you'll say when you might only have a chance to say 12 words.”

NBC's Challenge

CNN does have opportunities to build complex promos. With special reports, the Autodesk Flame and Avid Symphony systems are used for adding elaborate effects and compositing images. In-show promos, Safon says, are built using the same graphics and character-generation gear (CNN uses the VizRT system) employed for the show in which the promo is appearing. “They'll be built right alongside,” he says.

But where Comedy Central and CNN have only to master the art of promoting shows from a single genre of TV, a major broadcast network like NBC has to make promos for everything from Fear Factor to The West Wing.

Promoting comedy at NBC has been especially challenging lately, Vescera says. One quirky new show this season, for example, doesn't lend itself to a quick hit. With The Office, as with Fox's Arrested Development, the humor relies to a large degree on viewers' growing to know the characters: The better you know them, the funnier the jokes—a daunting situation for the promo maker.

“You can take a 22-minute comedy and distill it down to the jokes,” Vescera says, “but you won't know why they're funny unless you watch the whole show.” The network produced longer promos for The Office in order to give viewers a taste of the show's trademark awkward silences and sidelong glances. “You need to get out of the way of the show and let it breathe,” he says.

The fact that viewers didn't exactly flock to The Office hasn't dampened Vescera's enthusiasm for taking on challenging assignments. He's particularly looking forward to working on selling the lowlife-to-lottery-winner comedy My Name Is Earl to audiences. “It's definitely our most original new show,” he says, getting a bit of a head-start on the promotional work.

Building a proper promo or even a show open takes more than just having a great clip. That's why a gathering of promo professionals, the Promax & BDA convention in New York this week, will feature workshops like the one led by Chris and Trish Meyer, co-owners of CyberMotion, a Los Angeles-based post-production and design facility.

Right Brain, Left Brain

Trish Meyer says the theme they hammer home in their sessions is that it's important to understand not only how to produce an effect or animation but how the system that makes it works. “It's all about using both the left and right sides of the brain,” she says. “Creativity is great, but if an artist compromises because they don't know how to solve technical problems, they'll quickly become frustrated, and creativity will suffer.”

If users take the time to understand a tool like Adobe After Effects, she says, they can personalize the system to best meet their needs. “It allows you to do things like go into a pre-set special effect and change the parameters so that it becomes a personalized effect.”

One of the challenges that all promo designers face is high-definition TV. Trying to design show opens for both the widescreen and standard-screen versions for one project, Meyer says, often means the designer can't take advantage of the extra space afforded by widescreens. “It's very difficult to design type for an open and not have it go to the left or right of the screen,” she says. Meyer will offer tips for finessing HD in the Promax workshop.

Moving Toward HD

NBC Agency, a Burbank, Calif.-based facility that handles promos for a variety of NBC Universal networks as well as for outside clients, is also looking more closely at HD. To that end, the facility has Avid Nitris Symphony systems and high-end SGI systems outfitted with Autodesk Flame, Inferno and Fire systems available for building up to 40 promos per day.

“We're moving towards providing everything in HD,” says Senior Director, Technical Operations, Jim Keller.

Getting to HD, however, won't be easy. The higher resolution nearly quadruples the time it takes to render a graphic, as well as the cost of the gear, according to Keller. It also requires the team to work on larger monitors so that they can see details that viewers with large screens will be able to see. “The quality has to be uniform, and that means more critical review and analysis,” he says.

Just when promo makers are taking advantage of faster, more powerful hardware to help produce work that breaks the mold of the old-style “A very special…” promo, the demands of HD may slow the process, at least temporarily. But when it does, the new sensibility about how to promote shows should be firmly established.