An insider view on ‘in-programme prompts’

Remember the Graham Norton promo over last week's Doctor Who? Here's the take on it from someone who schedules such promos for a living...

The recent Doctor Who furore has brought to light the British public’s dismay at the ever increasing use of on-screen graphics over television shows, and in particular the trail or IPP (in-programme pointer), which runs directly over the programme image.

The public outcry is part of a wider issue: should television viewers be subjected to animations for shows that are coming next, or should the programme be presented cleanly? As with all things, the answer lies somewhere in-between.

But now for a dirty secret… I work in a television department responsible for scheduling these things. Oh, and while I’m at it (and this is important for later) I wholeheartedly believe in public service broadcasting and the license fee, but complained straight away after that awful dancing Norton appeared on-screen.

So, I’d like to set some facts straight. The people who schedule these things aren’t faceless powers-that-be. They are, in fact, pretty normal people, and most of the time fans of the shows being aired. Unfortunately, they mostly work for commercial stations driven by ratings and subscriptions.

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I’ve followed the reaction to Doctor Who all over the web and one of the comments was why should people put up with this intrusion on television and not cinema or books. A fair point, but unlike those other two, TV is regarded first and foremost as a business or social tool, and secondly as an art form.

Shows are generally put on air by commercial investors and subscribers, and to survive, each channel needs to attract more of these. Of course, the BBC is somewhat different, but I shall come to them in due course.

The decision on what graphics go where is usually taken by the promo strategy or continuity team, and then implemented by the presentation team. Key shows are targeted to either promote or be promoted on, and then the various prompts are scheduled. The teams then look at minute by minute data run from the BARB (Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board ) overnight audience figure, and then see the percentage of people who watched the channel while the IPP ran and then switched over to the channel being pointed to.

The success of these, though, varies greatly. For instance, the prompts to ‘switch over now’, for the recent leaders debates led to an estimated 24% of people doing so. That may not sound much, but that’s a quarter of people deciding to act upon the message. In relative terms, that’s massive.

Other prompts, though, have such a negligible impact it cannot even be measured.

On top of all this, though, is the fact that all these findings are entirely subjective, as the viewer may have already seen a promo or decided to watch the programme in question with or without intervention. ‘So why bother at all?’ is the question you’re probably asking. Again, this goes back to the basic commercial nature of almost all television. Anything which can be used to drive viewers to your channel will be done, especially in today’s ever increasing and diverse marketplace.

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The channels are privy to the best advertising space possible, directly before and after the programme, and as we have all seen, during it as well. To not use it is ludicrous. If viewers can be seen to be influenced to go where the channels want them to go, then the higher-ups are happy, and the commercial revenue is happy. It knows that it is not wasting its time advertising on the channel. This, in turn, allows more programmes to be made and more viewers enticed, and then directed to where the channel wants them to go. And so on and so forth.

If this seems like a never-ending cycle of ratings and numbers, then don’t despair. Despite how it is sometimes portrayed, there is a genuine editorial vs. rating debate going on at most channels.

I have previously been tasked with deciding where the dreaded graphical trail would go on a certain US import this terrestrial channel was chiefly known for, and I was given discretion as to whether I should drop it if the content of the episode demanded it, e.g. a sombre ending or a cliff-hanger. And despite the importance of commercial revenue to these channels, there is one thing more important: you the viewer.

If you complain or demand otherwise, these graphics will be dropped, at least in-show. They are particularly sensitive to genre or drama shows, and I have been reliably informed that after negative viewer reaction to graphics during Battlestar Galactica, these were then dropped. The same went for a disruptive HD prompt before Caprica, which was toned down on the suggestion of their presentation team, of which there were several fans of the show.

All of which leads me to the BBC, and their IPP debacle at the weekend. I have never worked for them, so I’m not sure what their current policy is on the scheduling of these items. I speak subjectively as a fan of television, a believer in the BBC, and as a license fee payer.

The BBC exists and operates in a unique environment in television. It is responsible solely to us, the viewers, and not commercial necessity. I happily pay my license fee and defend it due to the unrivalled quality usually shown. A case in point was the recent Sunday night combo of Tropic Of Cancer and Wonders Of The Solar System.

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However, by that same token, I also have the right to question what appears on screen, especially on a channel which is designed to be advert free. Because, make no mistake, these prompts are regarded as adverts, and not just by the viewer.

The BBC has a responsibility to provide its viewers with quality television uncluttered by graphics. I understand completely that it needs to chase ratings in order to justify itself and the license fee, to not only the government, but the media as well, but chasing ratings by ruining a much vaunted flagship show is surely not the way to go.

And yes, it may be just a television show, but for many it is an increasingly rare investment of time and emotion, and one which I felt genuine personal and professional anger over when the trail appeared.

However, if the audience does not speak up, then I worry that the channels will take viewer acceptance of these intrusions as complicit, and we may end up like the situation in the US.

If we campaign enough, then we can make it clear to the BBC and other channels that constant and loud disruption to the actual programmes is not the way to go.

Business necessity and research dictates that prompts do seem to work, however negligibly, and so will be there in one form or another for the foreseeable future. I believe that most rational people understand this, and accept it. I just think that where we have a more decisive say, as with the BBC, we need to make it clear what we will and won’t tolerate.

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And don’t let their sort-of apology put you off. You can always threaten them with The Daily Mail…