Monday, June 23, 2014

On the next: Levine Rant

TV’s equivalent of the Hatfields & McCoy’s is showrunners vs. network promo departments.

It’s tough for the promo departments because showrunners are never happy. They all want more promos, they all want longer promos, they all want promos in top rated shows where their message might actually be seen. There are only so many promo slots and invariably somebody or everybody is going to be unhappy.

For showrunners, it’s often maddening that promo departments will give away big plot twists, give away big jokes, or create an ad that’s not an accurate representation of what the episode is about. Many times I’ve seen a promo for my show and just cringed. If there’s a sex joke or pratfall you can bet the farm that’s what the promo will highlight.

One of my new pet peeves is promo departments trying to be too trendy. An example is the recent CBS sitcom, FRIENDS WITH BETTER LIVES. CBS promoted it as #FWBL. It had aired maybe twice. Who the fuck knew that #FWBL meant FRIENDS WITH BETTER LIVES? It was just a jumble of random letters and the super-trendy hash tag. At least HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER had been on the air for years before many adopted the shorthand HIMYM. And I’m sure 70% of their audience still doesn’t know what HIMYM means. Stop pandering so desperately to the LOL/OMG crowd that you break the first rule of advertising: tell the public what the product is.
And stop reducing show titles to one word. It’s fine to just say IDOL because we all know what AMERICAN IDOL is. But recently I heard a promo on Fox for DANCE. Huh?  It’s not even like there’s only one show on TV with “dance” in the title. In this case it was SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE – a summer replacement. Of all the shows with “dance” in their name it’s not even the one you think of first. If at all.

This is true in daytime too. When you hear “On the next ELLEN…” you know who Ellen is. You know who Oprah is (or was). But when I hear “On the next Wendy…” I’m scratching my head saying who the fuck is that? A show has to be on long enough or have the star identifiable enough that he earns the right to shorthand. Or have a goofy name like Montell or Arsenio or Queen.

Promo departments also get into trouble with the catchphrase “on the next” because it will trap them into ungrammatical statements. “On the next THE VIEW…”

As if grammar matters. When a cable series goes to commercial the new trend is to hear, “brought to you in part by…” What is brought to you in part by? Would it be so hard to add “MAD MEN is brought to you in part by…?”

A network may claim they do that because they only have precious few seconds to get their message across in this era of fast forwarding through non-content. But that doesn’t stop ABC from saying ABC eight times in every promo. “Tonight on ABC – ABC’s SCANDAL on ABC.” A – we get it, B – it’s grammatically incorrect, and C- it sounds like you think we are idiots.

Promo hype has also run its course. “Tonight on a very special episode of….” means nothing. No one believes “This is the episode everyone will be talking about tomorrow.” One promo claimed I would be “changed forever” if I watched some cheesy procedural.

One particularly heinous promo said, “Tonight it’s MODERN FAMILY, the best family comedy on the air… followed by THE MIDDLE.” Nice promo for THE MIDDLE, guys.

And that brings up another issue. A :30 second promo for MODERN FAMILY and MIDDLE will feature :25 seconds of MODERN FAMILY and :05 for THE MIDDLE. To the network each show gets credit for a promo.

Networks also believe those horrible intrusive animated blobs they have pop up in the middle of shows constitute a promo. Yes, in the sense that you’re turning people off to those shows. The expression “Any publicity is good publicity” does not apply to TV promos. Annoying promos repel viewers. If someone is going to hate my show, at least do so based on the show, not because you think I’m ruining THE GOOD WIFE by shoving my message in your face.

But like I said, this is an age old feud between promo departments and showrunners. I’m sure the promo people could show you research that you can not repeat your network ID enough, even if it sounds forced and desperate. They will tell you that sex jokes attract attention. They will tell you that those animated pop ups are the only way to force viewers to see your title since everyone fast forwards through commercials and promos. They’ll tell you that #FWBL sends a message that CBS is totally locked in to young viewers. They’ll have numbers and charts and graphs. What they don’t seem to have is that one person who’ll step back and say, “#FWBL – WTF does that mean?”

55 comments:

Kevin said...

Similar to the Middle/Modern Family issue, I remember when Frasier and Friends were both ending on NBC, and NBC was constantly touting the final episodes of Friends with superlatives it never earned and treated the Frasier finale almost as an afterthought. I'm not sure how high up that attitude went, but that was how the promotions seemed to me as a viewer. (Ten years later, and I am still irate.)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I don't think it's ungrammatical to say "On the next THE VIEW" because "THE VIEW" is the show's title. It's inelegant, for sure - but no more ungrammatical than saying "In the next NEW SCIENTIST".

A much bigger annoyance for me is "changed forever". Nothing is changed forever. Nothing is going to change *me* or my life forever - because neither is infinite. changed *permanently*, sure. But no matter how much your TV episode changes me, one day all that will be lost because I'll be dead.

So, you know, not so much of the reminding me of my mortality, please!

wg

Pat Reeder said...

Wendy M. Grossman: If you believe in an immortal soul, then I suppose a TV show could change you forever. But I don't know if I would want to live forever in any universe where my immortal soul could be changed for all eternity by watching an episode of "JAG."

Kirk from Kansas City said...

I'm not looking for a television show that will "change me forever." Do you know what the last thing on TV was that changed me forever? 9/11. No, thank you!

Dan Ball said...

This is a pretty great, true rant. I can always tell when a movie's going to suck by the amount of promos you see for it, on TV or the web or the place you'd least expect (like first base...though Spider-Man 2 was a GREAT movie).

When a movie's going to suck, the studio tries to recoup their impending losses by amping up the buzz and marketing to get people to see it the first weekend. They know that once word gets out that it sucks, the numbers will go right through the floor to China.

The ROBOCOP remake was a perfect example out of many. I was mildly interested in it for a long time, but once I started seeing a LOT of promos on TV, the web, and on potato chip AND candy bar packaging, I got that sinking feeling about it.

The latest X-MEN, on the other hand, got a lot of marketing, but you could tell it wasn't as pervasive as ROBOCOP because there seemed to be a limit and it seemed to be hyped as an event more than a cry of desperation, begging for an audience to see the movie.

The result? ROBOCOP got bad reviews, most people agreed it wasn't the original, so I saved my money. X-MEN, on the other hand, was a delight to see on the big screen and quite possibly the best X-MEN movie to date.

Another example: compare the promotion of an Adam Sandler movie to, say, 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

Yeah, studios and networks need to go back to school and learn the meaning of viral marketing. If anything goes viral, it's gonna be how much they suck at marketing.

Igor said...

Wasn't HIMYM the name of one of the locals in that comedy classic "Volunteers"?

Michael said...

Maybe they are an active representation of the show, but the promos for SULLIVAN AND SON on TBS changed my mind from giving it a try to skipping it.

Igor said...

"... and C- it sounds like you think we are idiots."

Wait, I don't get it.

Igor said...

Correction...

Wasn't HIMYM the name of one of the locals in that comedy classic "Volunteers"?

Now on sale in the lobby: http://www.amazon.com/Volunteers-Tom-Hanks/dp/B0000399WD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&camp=211189&creative=373489&creativeASIN=1493674978&link_code=as3&tag=greatbigradio-20

Douglas Trapasso said...

Ken, did you know the ABC promo voiceover guy from the 70's? I can't remember his name, but I know he did Letterman (NBC version) a few times. I can still hear his baritone promo-ing "ROOTS" and "The Loooovvvve Boat"

Walker Brown said...

Thank you for highlighting the abomination that is the pop-up promo during programming. Cable networks are some of the worst offenders, as they will often advertise some show above the logo bug for the entire duration of the program. I saw one for Mixology on ABC that featured someone tossing wine glasses. In my opinion, all this does is annoy potential viewers.

Andy Ihnatko said...

Hulu Plus is trying to generate interest in a British comedy. The promo includes a shot of a filthy, wild-eyed, toothless crack addict graphically miming a blowjob.

And because Hulu tends to use the same ads over and over again, I get to see it two or three times while watching a half-hour show.

Hulu has thus raised the bar on bad promos. Not only does this promo make me want to do whatever it takes to NOT see this new show...it's also discouraging me from watching Hulu.

The kicker? I've been binge-watching "The Bob Newhart Show." What a disconnect between one of the best, finely-crafted, character-driven sitcoms ever and a modern "getting attention is as good as getting laughs, right?" crapcoms.

Igor said...

I recall an episode of "Family Guy" when a pop-up promo appeared for "The Cleveland Show", and then the characters talked about it.

Of course, both of those shows are/were Seth MacFarlane shows. And yet (or perhaps, of course), the dialogue made fun of the pop-up.

Bill Jones said...

Ken--I have a follow-up question that perhaps you could address, about something (admittedly minor) that has always bugged me. Are promo departments also to blame for those cheesy group cast shots that often show the cast in poses they would NEVER create in their show, and that are occasionally totally incompatible with the characters?

For example, I recall a Seinfeld cast shot promo that showed the quartet hugging each other and smiling at the camera. Wha??? In the series, that would be fodder for any of the characters to deride.

As another example, there's a Frasier cast shot--currently used by Netflix--that shows the entire cast (including Bulldog) in a lovey, pyramid-type pose, all affectionately hugging one another. Of course, the characters didn't hate each other--but this photo is just so out of character that it looks beyond bizarre. (I know that Bulldog was a credited cast members in a few seasons, but even then, in the promo shot, he's affectionally hugging Frasier--something that would never, ever occur on that actual show.)

These photos just drive me crazy. The producers, writers, and actors spend years developing identities for the cast members, and yet the network disregards them completely when promoting the show, probably because market research somewhere has told them that viewers like it when characters are "lovable."

So, my two questions: (1) do the producers/writers/cast have any say into these dumb promo photos, and (2) do the producers/writers/cast get annoyed at the inaccurate portrayals of the characters in these types of examples?

Mork said...

First off, Douglas—that baritone belonged to Ernie Anderson, who passed away some years ago but snippets can still be heard here: http://www.ernieanderson.com/

The last time I heard a promo advertising “This is the episode everyone will be talking about”, it was for this season’s episode of “The Good Wife” in which something significiant happens to Will Gardner (I doubt anyone’s not heard it yet, but why spoil if unnecessary…). I was shocked as much at the events of the episode as I was at the fact that the episode actually lived up to the hype.

Red said...

Some more interesting info about Ernie Anderson:

*He used to be TV horror host "Ghoulardi" in Cleveland, OH, before his move to LA in the '60s to become King of the Voiceovers.

*He is the father of filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson, whose "Boogie Nights" was purportedly inspired in part by his dad's prodigious collection of '70s porn.

Phillip B said...

You've covered this before, Ken, but it has been awhile since a sitcom was promo'd with the phrase "And on a special episode.."

Truly cringe inducing. And covering a range of topics - from abortion and rape to a lost pet.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Lazy America at its finest!

Then again, it also seems to be something of a generational thing... or, at least, that's the perspective this webcomic put it into:
http://idget.comicgenesis.com/d/20100130.html

Rich D said...

Looks like someone beat me to the punch with Ernie Anderson's name.

But in the spirit of today's post, I want to refer you folks to one promo ABC did a few years back for their version of the BBC series LIFE IN MARS. Since the show was set in the 1970s, the promo department prepared something suitably retro, right down to finding an Ernie Anderson impersonator.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_obJ-5gaoA

Kane said...

Jeez, sometimes reading your column is like sitting and listening to my dad gripe about stuff that ticks him off.

tb said...

The pop up promos are annoying enough, but sometimes they cover up subtitles! Infuriating!

Terrence Moss said...

I am so sick and tired of the world pandering to, as you say, the LOL/OMG crowd. What a waste of effort and money.

Terrence Moss said...

But you can't say none of this is valid.

Jim said...

Back when he was on "Late Night," Conan would occasionally imitate what he'd get from the NBC promo department: "Jay's got blah-blah, blah-blah, and blah-blah-blah, and (extremely rushed) Co got b!"

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

I remember seeing a promo for a"Grey's Anatomy" episode in which the announcer said, "They've never worked so hard to save a life.", and then showed one of the main stars in an accident.

Really? These people are supposed to be doctors and they only work very hard to save their own colleagues?

That was a turn off.

Jason said...

FYI, SYTYCD is in its 11th season.. It's a summer show, not a summer replacement.

john driscoll Voice Over America said...

When i was at NBC2000 & Fox Area 21 we would be constantly tossing the copy back because grammar and it was always a hoot to hear the explanation of why they put it down on paper that way.

Jason said...

@Bill Jones

Is the Frasier photo the one Ken used in a post a couple of days ago..?

John said...

Follow up question - How often are the producers, etc. involved in these promos? I'm thinking specifically of the "Next week on (Lost/24/Alias/Heroes/Under The Dome/etc.) It seems to me like these must often be done with at least input from the show, because when they go to DVD, the promos are often still there. However, I cannot believe that these are completely up to the show, because often they give away too much, still.
Also, on Ernie Anderson, Drew Carey often wore a Ghoulardi T shirt, and I think might have had something on his fridge during the Drew Carey show.

D. McEwan said...

Actually, So You Think You Can Dance IS the dance show I think of first, because it's the one I watch, every damn week, every damn summer, for the last decade. It's theGOOD dance show. I never watch that pile of crap, Dancing With the Has-Beens. I do like that they never call it SYTYCD, though Entertainment Weekly does tend to refer to it as SYTYCD.

Actually "On the next The View" is grammatical, since "The View" is a title, it just sounds ungrammatical. That can be very effective. It's been 51 years, but who of us that is old enough have ever forgotten Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant ad slogan "The Birds is coming." The seeming grammatical error got it a lot of attention, including MAD Magazine's equally unforgettable: "The Birds is coming, and good grammar in advertising has went."

Hitch knew better than to refer to it as "TB" though. Who wants TB?

25 seconds for Modern Family amd 5 seconds for The Middle? Works for me. Modern Family doesn't have Patricia Heaton on it, so I watch it. (Though when my good friend Ginny McMath is on The Middle - She recurs - it's worth watching if you can stomach Miss Heaton. I can't.)

Scott said...

I suppose it's always been this way. I have a book that reproduces a letter from W.C. Fields to the management of Universal, asking them to come up with new gags for his latest picture to replace the ones they killed by highlighting them in the trailer.

Dave Creek said...

I'm particularly sick of ABC branding everything as "ABC's...whatever." Do they think people sit down with their remote and ask themselves, "What's on ABC tonight?"

To me it also devalues the efforts of the cast and crew of a particular show, because it sounds as if ABC is just churning shows out like they're widgets.

Yes, I know that might be a legitimate complaint in some cases.

Matt Tauber said...

Fox promos used to drive me crazy during the run of X-Files. "Tonight, on an all-new The X-Files," they would say. "Just say X-Files," I would yell at the TV. "Everyone just calls it X-files!"

Anonymous said...

Doesn't matter if it's valid or not. Griping replaced baseball as the national pasttime many years ago.

Tim Dunleavy said...

Here's a "very special" Wikipedia page...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Very_special_episode

skarab said...

Ken- THANK YOU for saying something about those annoying popups at the bottom of the screen. In fact, saying "bottom" doesn't do them justice: they are constantly trying to creep higher and higher on the screen, with whole bits being mimed, or someone shooting or puking, and I've even seen them cover something onscreen that's key to the actual show I'm watching. I do make a mental note not to watch those shows simply because the popups are so intrusive.

skarab said...

We do watch "So You Think You Can Dance" and it's not a bad show, but in the spirit of every such show having a snooty Brit as a judge, I like to refer to it (In a snooty British accent) as "So You Baggage Think You Can Dance, Do You"

BigTed said...

Cable and satellite streaming services like Dish Anywhere seem to be scrambling for ads to put in their shows... but the strangest thing is when they repeatedly insert promos for the show you're actually watching while you're watching it.

The other funny thing was when Dish Anywhere repeated the same commercial about seven times in one show... and it was an ad for Time Warner Cable.

Todd Everett said...

Andy Ihnatko said...

...And because Hulu tends to use the same ads over and over again, I get to see it two or three times while watching a half-hour show.

Wait a minute -- Hulu+ runs commercials? If I wanted to see commercials, I'd watch the Sundance Channel, the Disney Channel, and AMC!

jbryant said...

When those pop-up ads have characters wandering into the bottom of the screen, it's so disconcerting. "Hey, when did this show get leprechauns?"

Ralph C. said...

LCD...lowest common denominator.

Liz said...

I have a book that reproduces a letter from W.C. Fields to the management of Universal, asking them to come up with new gags for his latest picture to replace the ones they killed by highlighting them in the trailer.

I don't doubt that. Fields' grandson edited a collection of his Grandfather's papers and letters, and they're interesting to read, just to witness Fields' devotion to his films. They were revelatory in light of how an older generation of biographers used to insist that Fields' "scripts" were just a few impossible-to-film scenes scribbled on the backs of used envelopes, and that Fields used to just improvise his way through his movies. His papers and letters reveal, though, the degree to which Fields sweated blood over those movies, slaving over the scripts and fighting with studios over the way they were cut. (He had no say in final edits, but made his opinion known, anyway.)

I suppose it made for a better story to claim that Fields paid no attention to writing scripts and just went out and made it all up as he went along. There's a long history of claims about comedians who supposedly had no use for writers, but just made it all up as they went along. Like a documentary I saw once that discussed the series You Bet Your Life that had some talking head saying the show was just Groucho relying on his "inborn wit." Not to deny Groucho his wit and his abilty to ad-lib, but Groucho also had writers, who supplied him with material that was written out on index cards for him to use as he chose.

That, I suppose, is my pet peeve. That the writers on him comedians depend are so quick to be overlooked, ignored and dismissed so the illusion can be maintained that the comic is just making it all up as he goes along.

Steve B. said...

For decades, I've cringed whenever anchors on The Today Show have tossed to commercial by saying, "But first, this is Today on NBC." But first what? What kind of a toss is that? What the hell does it even mean?

Paul Duca said...

Steve B...the phrase "This is TODAY on NBC" is actually a signal for affiliates to cue up local advertisements.

Steve McLean said...

Bravo drove me away from thinking I could ever watch a theatrical release movie on commercial TV again. During 'The Exorcist', in the big exorcism scene...one of the most brilliant scenes ever filmed...Bravo's Kathy Griffin popped up strutting across the bottom of the screen in the promo for her 'all new special'. (And programming thinks that the sales department whore out their product?)

Craig Russell said...

Weird how all of this post relates to the "dying" medium of radio. First, Ernie Anderson not only was the voice of ABC but he was a voice used on Z100 in New York and Kiss FM in LA back in the 80's and early 90's.

Second that annoying habit of dropping the first word or two from movie or TV titles can be credited to...America's favorite homespun radio news reader Paul Harvey. It used to make me cringe everytime ol' Paul would refer to the number one movie in the country as "Shawshank" or "Beauty"

I guess he thought thats how Middle America talked. Or at least old people. Since he was about 100 for most of the 90's...

To be fair, I liked listening to Harvey. His ads woven into the news headlines was a throwback to a different time in broadcasting. And his "proper" pronunciations of "Pro-tee-en" make me chuckle to this day.

He would have called it "Idol" "Dance" and "Mother" as well. God rest his soul.

James Van Hise said...

Yes, those little promos at the bottom of the screen. Who remembers that they started in 1999 to promote the Stephen King mini-series Storm of the Century? Because they were brand new they were even more annoying because you'd be watching a show and suddenly at the bottom of the screen it said STORM WARNING! and then it revealed how many days left until the mini-series would air. Terrible. The thing is, the mini-series didn't have great ratings (it was rerun 6 months later on the Sci-Fi Channel instead of the network which first aired it), but everyone picked up on the idea of intrusive promos, sometimes making them so large they'd cover up characters on the screen who were speaking. The cable channels seem to be the worst at doing this, and Lord help us if they have a major movie coming up because then they'll put a countdown up on the screen. It really does alienate viewers, but they keep doing it anyway.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Todd Everett

"Wait a minute -- Hulu+ runs commercials?"

What rock have you been living under? Hulu's had commercials since it's inception! For years, we had that deep voice saying, "The following video is brought to you with limited (blatant lie) commercial 'inter-option' by _______." I did a parody of that once.

John said...

After reading Ken's rant, I long for a deep-voiced announcer promo that opens with "On the next who the fuck is that..." even if you can't get that daytime show title into a one-word name.

JoeyH said...

On the next "Ken"

I think HIMYM was the robot on "Get Smart."

VP81955 said...

The thing that gets me are the movie promotions: "From the director of 'Xxxx Xxx Xxxx'" or "From the producer of 'Yyyyy Yyyy'"; why the hell can't they just give us his name? (For "A Million Ways To Die In The West," the very poor man's "Blazing Saddles," the line was "From the guys who gave you 'Ted.'" Now I can understand Seth Macfarlane not wanting to put his name all over the place -- as you recall, he allegedly acted in it, too -- but the sophomoric frat-boy crowd who was the core audience for this movie probably already was aware who was behind the production.) At least Spike Lee and Woody Allen put their names behind their films.

Breadbaker said...

We would parody those intros: "From the Key Grip on Star Wars Episode 1 and the Gaffer on American Beauty."

Greg Ehrbar said...

Some thoughts:

NBC promos used to say “Tonight, Dave laughs it up with [name].” It was one of the things Letterman would rant about on his show.

Ernie Anderson also used to growl, “Vayy-gess” for “Vegas.”

“Are promo departments also to blame for those cheesy group cast shots that often show the cast in poses they would NEVER create in their show, and that are occasionally totally incompatible with the characters?”

I can’t stand those MacCauley Culkin poses that they make sitcom stars do for the promo photos. They look like Jerry Lewis or Joe E. Brown. But these modern day people are supposedly more sophisticated performers who normally wouldn’t pose this way unless it was an SNL skit.

“The thing that gets me are the movie promotions: ‘From the director of 'Xxxx Xxx Xxxx'" or "From the producer of 'Yyyyy Yyyy’”

ABC started doing this a LOT in the ‘70s when they became No. 1.

Kosmo13 said...

There was a network that promo'ed first-run programs "Tonight on a fresh episode of ..." Do they still do that?

That made the program sound like a feminine hygiene product instead of something I'd want to watch for an hour.

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

More Ernie Anderson facts:

*He was once part of a comedy team with Tim Conway. They made a few TV appearances, and recorded two albums. I suspect that at one point they were a more or less equal team (a couple of their bits show a definite Bob & Ray influence), but eventually they fell in a routine in which Anderson would be an interviewer whose lines were all of the "So tell us about your new invention, professor" sort, and Conway had all the jokes. It is thus not surprising which one became the star.

*Drew Carey often wore a Ghoulardi t-shirt on his sitcom.

*One of Anderson's last jobs was the pilot for the cartoon series "Powerpuff Girls." He narrated and played the mayor. He died before the series began production, and these roles were taken by Tom Kenny.