Tom Shales on those pop-up promos that just won't go away

By Tom Shales
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

There's no official count on this, but it's fairly safe to say it: Everybody hates them. They're those infuriating pop-up promos super-imposed on the bottom of the screen and appearing with greater and greater frequency while you try to watch a television program. Unfortunately, they're as popular with networks as they are unpopular with viewers. There is absolutely no sign of relief ahead and instead a distinct possibility that the problem will get worse.

It happens so often, it almost seems normal. You're watching a rerun of "Law & Order" on TBS, let's say, and even though the show has reached a climactic emotional moment, and the tawdry loony is confessing to the crime, up there pops, from the bottom of the screen, images of characters from a silly sitcom like "Are We There Yet?" or romping pranksters from "Just for Laughs," and the mood is shattered. You're suddenly watching two shows at once, or at least 1 1/2 .

Your eyes are distracted, the drama is muted, and you might sputter some angry epithet about greed amongst the networks. Greedy they are, but also desperate. With the number of program choices greatly amplified, especially in cable, and with the economy lying heap-like in the gutter, the fight for your attention is at an all-time feverish pitch. Hence, the pop-up promos and no, they don't care how much you hate them.

"Yes, people complain but they complain that the music's too loud, too," says one veteran network vice president, who asked not to be identified so as to speak more freely. "Still, they suffer through it in order to watch television." There's no research to show that being pelted with promos keeps anybody from watching TV.

In the business, the promos are referred to flippantly as "buttons" or "bugs," but the more official term is "lower thirds," because they take up -- theoretically -- the lower third of the screen. But sometimes the promos, elaborately produced with special footage and animation, reach into that upper two-thirds, too. Who knows but that the standard will change, and the networks, emboldened, will soon be airing promos called "bottom halves."

The situation is much worse on cable than on the broadcast networks. On some cable channels the promos simply never stop; it's like a veritable parallel channel that co-exists with whatever it is you actually want to watch; this parallel channel shows nothing but promos in endless spewage.

Why do the networks persist in a practice they know irritates or infuriates viewers? First, there's nothing to stop them -- no FCC rule (tiny-minded FCC commissioners only care about dirty words anyway) or other sanction. Second, they've run out of spare time in which to put promos; unless they shorten the running time of programs even more -- and some "hour-long" shows barely amount to 40 minutes of program material as it is -- their promo availabilities are scarce.

"Lower thirds" have the advantage, obviously, of reaching viewers who are already captive. In addition, they are TiVo-proof; you'll see them even if you fast-forward through regular commercials.

In its first few decades, television was free of this kind of clutter; the term "clutter" referred instead to the proliferation of 30-second, 15-second and even 10-second spots that were crowded together around station breaks or commercial breaks and pummeled viewers with a dizzy blitz of messages. You wouldn't think these would be very effective, but apparently, they serve the networks' purpose. Now clutter has become a matter more of space than of time.

Digital technology has made it a lot easier to superimpose (hence, "supers") words and pictures onto the screen without altering the dominant picture or making a loud buzzing sound, which really used to happen when white letters were super'd over program material. In addition, the programs were quaintly considered inviolate, not to be besmirched with outside material like promos or commercials. Actually, if the networks can get audiences to tolerate pop-up promos by the dozens, maybe they'll start selling pop-up commercials, too.

There's already been some of that, though it has hardly reached the blight stage. But the promos have. They are everywhere. They are no respecter of programs, themes, personalities, whatever. Eleanor Roosevelt could come back to life and do charity spiels for orphans; the promos would go right on, crawling across her bosom. They often start immediately following a commercial break that may have included promos of its own, then they continue cluttering up the lower third until the next commercial break comes along.

It's somewhat comparable to a recorded song in which the back-up band drowns out the singer. Promo departments are full of people who think they're just as creative as those who make programs; they may even have a certain disdain for the program-makers and take delight in cranking out promos that upstage the shows.

Whatever the deeper and darker motivations, the pernicious lower thirds will continue ad nauseam to dance and scamper along the gutter, and they're likely to increase in whatever crannies are so far untouched. A few really quality, classy networks -- like TCM, Turner Classic Movies -- have so far eschewed the practice, but on most others, the promos are virtually always there.

Once upon a time, television networks subscribed to a Code of Conduct enforced by the National Association of Broadcasters, a code that probably would have regulated, and even limited, the amount of promotional material (included under "non-program material" generally) that a network could throw in viewers' faces, in whatever form. But a foolish old judge in a federal court struck down the code years ago as a "restraint of trade." And as our network vice president puts it, "Since then, it's been basically the Wild West out there ."

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