We interrupt this programme...

By Stephen Hopkins

In-Programme Pointers are here to stay. Here's why.

Regular television watchers will have noticed of late a new trick up the sleeves of television broadcasters. Well, not entirely new - cable and satellite channels have used it for some time - but ITV1 recently did much to bring to a mass audience the concept of the “In-Programme Pointer” (IPP). Sometimes known as an “On-Screen Next” (OSN), IPPs are on-screen presentational devices used by broadcasters to remind viewers of subsequent programming on the same or related channels.

Prior to its fresh lick of paint in January 2006, ITV was already using IPPs on its multi-channel output. They were tied into the station logo that most channels sport nowadays, and worked something like this. Take ITV 3 for example. Shortly before the end of a programme, the translucent |i|t|v|3| in the corner would become fully saturated, and a horizontal bar the same height as the logo would extend out to the right. The ITV 3 logo would “roll over” like an elongated box to reveal the logo of a sister channel a programme on which it wanted to promote, and superimposed on the bar would be information about that programme (name and start time). The logo would roll over again and repeat this process if there was more than one other channel with programmes worth promoting. It wasn't exactly subliminal promotion, but it was discreet and tasteful. It did its job without getting too much in the way of the underlying programme.

Recently, ITV 1 has started using a particularly oversized version. It has appeared on programmes such as Coronation Street and Emmerdale, and it is seen above during the final few moments of Tiswas. It promptly attracted complaints, as well something so in-your-face might. Artistically speaking, it's hard to fault. As a piece of graphics art-work it is stylish and tasteful, consistent with ITV's overall brand, and as an illustrative caption it works very well, although being used for this purpose it could do with toning down a little.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with IPPs; such devices do have their place. However, critics have essentially two fundamental objections. The first concerns the principle of combining presentation and content, and is based on a perceived disrespect of the programme-maker if on-screen graphics are laid over the current programme. The second is to do with their execution being insensitive to or inconsiderate of the likely emotional state of the audience: for example, when they intrude on a closing and climactic scene of great pathos in a drama or film.

In June 2007, a long-running story in The Archers reached its denouement, when Siobhan Hathaway eventually succumbed to cancer. She had been having an affair with Brian Aldridge, who was at her side when she died, saying goodbye. Granted, The Archers is not exactly high art, but it was noticeable how Radio 4 tweaked its presentation. The music played for slightly longer than usual, and the chap announcing Front Row did not sound like a Radio 4 continuity announcer's normal self. Considering that half his audience was likely fighting back tears (Kirsty Lang introduced Front Row with a joke about attempting to cheer up everyone) it was little wonder. That's what makes at least this correspondent want to throw things at the telly: when presentation gate-crashes on the carefully-constructed mood or atmosphere or emotion that the director has built up. At least on Tiswas (fancy once again talking about Tiswas in the present tense!) it's merely irritating.

However, in the multi-channel era, IPPs are here to stay. Audiences are more fragmented; there is more choice; the days of yore when you could consult three columns in the paper to find out all that was on in prime-time have long gone.

People have different viewing habits. If you have a handful of regular channels and are intimately aware of their schedules, IPPs might be little more than a distraction. However, viewers can be quite selective. Imagine you are interested in only a small number of individual programmes and have told your TiVo or Sky+ box to record them all automatically. You neither know nor care when they feature in the schedules, but you do know that your PVR will inform you when a new episode is awaiting viewing. However, this means that you might spend very little time (if any) in the “environment” (that is, the trailers and other channel-branded fragments jostling for attention among the adverts) of any channel. You might not even know at what time your favourite programme is habitually broadcast! In short, your schedule awareness is likely to be low.

This is not the business model around which commercial television developed. From the outset, broadcasters sold advertising time based on the premise that they could deliver so many thousands of viewers to advertisers in-between and during programmes. In the early days, televisions did not have buttons pre-set to BBC TV and the ITV contractor for that area. Television sets had a manual dial serving as the channel selector, and in an era when broadcasting hours were strictly limited by order of Parliament, it was not that unusual to tune in the television before the evening's programming commenced and leave it on the same channel for the entire night. The “start-up” routine, in which viewers could see a tuning signal identifying both the transmitter and the BBC or ITA as appropriate, was not entirely for only the technicians' benefit.

In this environment, commercial broadcasters did not have to work that hard to retain eyeballs from one programme to the next. Channel retention then was much higher, no doubt greatly assisted by the lack of remote controls (ad channels!) and the inertia of viewers.

As the number of channels rose, the audience became more fragmented. Channel loyalty waned. Multi-channel digital broadcasting gave viewers more choice than ever before, and the remote control let them exploit this choice without having to drag their backsides off the sofa. The rolling of the credits had become a cue to channel-hop.

This was not what the broadcasters wanted. They realized that if they wanted to retain viewers, they'd have to earn their loyalty.

Electromusications has it on the most reliable authority that almost everything that makes it to air nowadays is buttressed by a mountain of supportive audience research. Commissioning editors use it both to assist their decision-making and as a defence in case, in spite of the research, the programme subsequently proves to be a flop. The BBC, ITV and the like must have done their research and found in the people they questioned evidence of low schedule awareness; evidence enough to cause concern. For such people, the tried-and-tested methods of audience communication - trailers, the “after-the-break” slide and voice-over, or even the old trick of reading from the TV Times - simply weren't proving effective any more. New methods had to be devised.

And this is where IPPs come into their own. Little messages, strategically timed throughout the broadcast, can alert you to other programmes that you might be interested in, or to information about the one that you're watching. For example, suppose you chance upon a programme you always used to watch, and an IPP tells you that new episodes get repeated on such-and-such a day and time. It could well be telling you something useful that you did not know previously.

The other presentational device that often comes in for criticism among the hard core of pres geeks (and the author cheerfully includes himself in this category) is the credit squeeze. No, not yet another hike in interest rates, but the practice of shrinking the picture as the credits roll, so that the channel bears more than a passing resemblance to Bloomberg or CNBC. Except, instead of stock market tickers and fancy graphs, the screen real-estate thus freed is used for trailers and to promote the channel or aspects thereof.

Again, much criticised by some, but for the hard-to-reach viewer these end-credit promotions (ECPs), as the credit squeeze is sometimes known, are another means of telling you what you might not have known. Perhaps, even, of telling you what you did not yet know you wanted to know. Fans of Coronation Street might well prefer to switch over for Eastenders rather than stick around for Tonight. But it is entirely appropriate to remind viewers, before they do so, to flick back in half an hour for the second visit to Weatherfield. Here, ECPs and IPPs come into their own.

Let's not kid ourselves. The broadcasters don't do such things for the good of our health. They do so to increase audiences, and as advertising rates are usually quoted in terms of cost-per-thousand (viewers), it follows that for every additional thousand viewers a broadcaster can deliver to advertisers, it reaps an extra multiple of its cost-per-thousand rate (or in the BBC's case, it has a stronger case to justify the licence fee). ECPs help with audience retention.

All this begs one question: what proof is there that IPPs and ECPs work? Regular readers may be aware of BARB; it is less well known that a company called Peaktime has live, real-time access to BARB's data. Broadcasters can subscribe to the Peaktime system, which displays as an animated graph how many people are watching any given channel, and from this they can see in real time the audience behaviour before, during and after a programme. Peaktime has been used to demonstrate both that the majority of viewers could not care less about the credits (visit your nearest cinema if you doubt this), and that, this notwithstanding, if the broadcaster gets in first with an ECP, viewers will refrain from switching over until the ECP has run its course. However intrusive some may find IPPs and ECPs, the fact is that they work. They are not going to go away, no matter how many times the usual suspects known to the BBC and ITV duty offices write in to complain.

But the usual suspects (and by no means only them) have reason to complain. The theory outlined above, of why they work, translates into practice more often than not; however, let us return to the two fundamental objections mentioned previously.

The superimposition of any presentation-related material during a programme is, by some arguments, disrespectful to the programme maker; even the humble station logo that most channels sport has a website campaigning for its abolition. With few exceptions, television programmes are artistic creations, and it should be no more acceptable to brand a programme than to paint the corporate logo of the Louvre in a corner of the Mona Lisa. If the director wanted graphics on the screen he'd have put them there. Given that the electronic programme guide can tell you at the press of a button what you're watching, there should be no need for additional on-screen graffiti. This purist view holds that the director has the final say over every pixel, and it is sacrilegious to encroach on the director's prerogative. However, it is somewhat unrealistic to expect broadcasters to cease any time soon the practice of branding their channels with the station logo, given how deeply entrenched it is.

Channel logos are one thing; you get used to them (especially the translucent ones). What's worse is when a large caption pops up and, at a stroke, shatters the emotional grip that the programme has spent goodness only knows how long trying to get on you.

You might have experienced this: a film features a character or characters with whom you empathize deeply; you feel their pain, you sort of experience or to some extent live their lives vicariously. In such cases, as the film is drawing to a close the last thing you want is to be reminded of Big Brother or the umpteenth regurgitation of Neighbours From Hell.

And when a programme gets under your skin to that extent, the music to which the closing credits are set provides a much-needed opportunity for you to wind down, and reflect on what has just transpired. In this sense, the credits act as a sort of “come-down” from the emotional roller-coaster that you've just experienced.

This is when ECPs are anything but a useful source of information; if a drama has left you emotionally drained, and like it or not some films can do exactly that to a cross-section of their audience, the ECP and voice-over can strike the most discordant of notes. Agreed, it isn't often that such considerations come into play, but broadcasters should be more prepared to allow exemptions from usual presentation policy in these cases.

IPPs and ECPs are here to stay. The broadcasters have sound reasons for using them; many viewers find them useful; most of the time they serve their intended purpose. However, broadcasters can still be a little more adept in identifying when their use would be inappropriate, or quite simply not fit for purpose.

Picture credits (in order of appearance): Tiswas Online, Andrew Wiseman's Television Room (x 2), BBC Commissioning site (x2) Used by permission.

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Article ©2007 Stephen Hopkins

Compilation ©2007 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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