Even Conan O'Brien Disses the Snipes

Late Night Underground Video Reveals True Feelings About Screen Clutter

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Even Conan O'Brien can't stand snipes. The talk-show host devoted some time recently to a short discussion with writer Robert Smigel about those little graphical elements that often show up at the bottom and corners of the TV screen when you're trying to watch a favorite show or movie. Like when you're relaxing by watching "The Godfather," said Mr. O'Brien, and a figure saunters on to the bottom of the screen and obscures one's view.
Robert Smigel (left) illustrates the tellustrator.
Robert Smigel (left) illustrates the tellustrator.

"On basic cable, they have no shame!" agreed Mr. Smigel.

It just goes to show: No matter how many different visual elements people now see when they toggle around a website, having to reckon with similar material when watching TV proves really irksome -- no matter whether you are famous or not.

Only getting worse
At one time, the little lower-screen residents were perfectly acceptable -- you could see through them, and they were usually no more than a network's logo or name. Now they convey messages about upcoming shows and other properties owned by a network's parent company, or involve little figures running around the bottom of the screen to distract your eye from the program you came to the network to see in the first place. And they block my view of important plot points during "Heroes"!

Expect things to get worse. Time Warner's TBS network has, for the second time, run promos of comedian Bill Engvall, with a remote control in hand, speaking over the dialogue being delivered by characters from "Family Guy."

Mr. Engvall quickly uses the remote to freeze-frame the show and continues talking. After delivering a promotional message, he lets "Family Guy" roll on, only to let the audience discover after a few seconds that the show is breaking for a commercial.

Pressure's on
At a recent industry panel I hosted, broadcast-network executives who oversee this sort of thing tut-tutted over TBS's flagrant example, but also admitted that the pressure's on to promote all sorts of things -- and not just their own shows. NBC has run promos for movies being launched by its sibling Universal movie studio. CBS has used "Swingtown" to promote Last.fm, its online music-sharing service. NBC Universal's CMO John Miller said he believed the time was not too far off when networks would cede that in-program time to advertisers other than themselves. Sad as that may be, it makes sense. TV remains the biggest way to get your message out to a broad audience -- and you have to reach that audience when they are riveted to the screen.

More viewers are skipping ads, but they still want to watch the programs those commercials support. To make that work, it seems, you've got to stick the ads in the shows, not outside of them.

The DVR may have given the consumer more control, but the results of using it could force the people who run the media companies to push back in a way that makes watching TV less fun -- even if Conan O'Brien doesn't like it.
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