Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Why TV Promos Need Moderating

Ofcom yesterday published its assessment of two TV trails or promos that appeared on Comedy Central a while ago.   Even though the promos aired at 10.00 p.m., an hour after the watershed, Ofcom thought they were inappropriately vulgar - for any audience.

As a Promo Producer for Bravo, I often worked with what could be considered contentious material. Our promos for such material had to fit within one of two designations: 'SAT' and 'SWC'.

'SAT' stood for "Schedule Any Time", which mean that the material, approach and style of the promo was light enough to not cause any concerns for any part of an audience that might be expected to see it. The promo could therefore be slotted into the transmission schedule at any time the channel was on air.

'SWC' was the acronym for "Schedule With Care" and, as such, was self-explanatory.  Usually it indicated the promo would only be transmitted during post-watershed hours - which in the UK are between 9.00 pm. and 5.30 a.m. on free-to-air channels.  (On premium and pay-to-view channels the timings are slightly different: 8.00 p.m. to 6.00 a.m.).  However, isolated instances could arise whereby the scheduling of a particular item not restricted to post-watershed hours would still require deliberation or sensitivity.  One such instance was when one of our promos for a thriller about a hijack situation on a North Sea oil-rig had to be hastily re-edited because a real, live catastrophe was actually taking place simultaneously on an oil rig in the North Sea.

Ofcom only gets called in if offence is taken, and offence in promos usually relates to a viewer being unhappy about what he or she has been shown.  This is because viewers elect to watch programmes: it's for them to find the 'off' button if they don't like something.  They don't, however, elect to watch promos and they have little control of being exposed to them - which is why Ofcom can be expected to moderate promos on their behalf, albeit usually after offence has been taken.

It works like this.  Once you are happily esconced in a programme, you'll understand the context and parameters within which it operates.  If outrage is promised - and you're looking forward to seeing some - then when it happens, you'll find it totally acceptable. 

But promos aren't something you can settle down into.  You don't know when to expect them: they are discontinuous, full of surprise and content not seen before. They are a stand-alone advertisement for a programme you haven't yet watched - nor possibly will want to.

Promos usually appear at a programme junctions or in commercial breaks, when the viewer is more distractable and less committed to watching that particular moment of television*.  To grasp the viewer's attention, promos have to be different - sensational, even. 

Promos will be watched by all sorts of people - including many who won't be interested in the programme's content or subject matter - and a few who might even find it offensive. They are designed to attract viewers to a programme, even if the viewer gives up once they start watching.  They are not designed to repel them.

Comedy Central overstepped the mark on his occasion because they didn't bear this in mind.  On the viewer's behalf, Ofcom stepped in and reprimanded the channel accordingly.

Promos are happenstance.  Viewers don't make an appointment to see them - and they can't necessarily avoid them, either.

The Amy Schumer clip was extremely crude but in context it was also outrageously funny.  However, like the viewers who complained to Ofcom, I'd be incredibly offended if it was shown to me when I wasn't expecting it.

*As a footnote, the BBC runs no commercial advertisements but runs many promos at programme junctions, cross-promoting its own services.  Initially the BBC saw on-screen promos as being an effective means of extending programme blocks to fill a half- or one-hour slot: much of the external programming it inherits are also  made for other TV markets, and as such would be short in order to accommodate paid advertising.  These days, this is less of a problem as the BBC makes its own programmes for sale to commercial broadcasters as, as such, therefore incorporates 'break opportunities' into the programme format.  As its programmes are shorter, it can use the airtime this frees up to promote its own services.  For example, the on-screen advertising for Radios 1 & 2 on BBC networks is currently estimated at a market equivalent of £80M per annum. 

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