Most Viewers Don't Recall In-Show Promos

Q&A: NBC Universal Television's CMO John Miller on Why Even More Are on the Way

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NEW YORK ( -- "What the heck is that on my TV screen!?!" With more people skipping past traditional promos and with more channels to watch than ever before, cable and broadcast outlets are upping the ante on how they promote their many offerings to the masses. That means viewers are seeing logos, program info and cartoon characters pop up from the corners of their screen and aggressively invade the space formerly reserved for favorite sitcom actors.
John Miller
John Miller Credit: NBC

These on-screen elements, known in the industry as "snipes," are often the cause of complaints. From FX to Time Warner's Turner Networks to CW and NBC, they are being more boldly placed than ever before -- moving from the corners of the screen to the middle of the lower third.

NBC research shows that 20% of viewers actively dislike them, 60% don't recall them and 20% found them useful. Navigating among those parties is one of John Miller's responsibilities. As chief marketing officer of the NBC Universal Television Group, he oversees the promotion of NBC Universal's many properties, from NBC News to CNBC.

The average couch potato doesn't often consider Brian Williams or "Chuck" to be a product like a can of Coke or a Nike sneaker. But in fact TV programs and personalities need to be sold and promoted just like that famous soda and that popular shoe. Since networks primarily rely on promotions that run on their own airwaves to do the job, the question remains: How aggressively can a company such as NBC Universal use its own screen to hype its content without angering the people who watch it and talk about it?

Mr. Miller examines the reasons for pushing the envelope and considers whether networks ought to pull back.

MediaWorks: In recent weeks, we've seen promos for "Phenomenon" and an NBC showing of "The Incredibles" smack dab in the middle of the bottom of the screen, obscuring the view of the program. Why have you taken promos to this level of intrusion? Now that you have gotten there, would you consider scaling back?

John Miller: "Out of format" snipes are the ones that are more intrusive. They are customized and come up silently and sort of go away. What we have at NBC in our program prep operations, we actually have a director -- a real live human being, a live person who is instructed to put those in if he can. He gives the permission if he feels it isn't disruptive. ... He is instructed to put it in at times he feels that is it less intrusive to the storyline. Now, do we go too far sometimes? Probably, yes. Does he occasionally make a mistake in trying to get something in? Maybe he does, but this is something we are always looking at. ...

In a DVR world, putting information over the screen is getting to be a little bit more common. That's the part that people aren't fast-forwarding through. The other part is in today's world, if you look at various channels -- MSNBC, CNBC, look at Fox News or CNN or multiple other channels -- you'll see four or five pieces of information on a screen at any one particular time. In a computer age, when people have multiple images going on ... they are sort of absorbing information in new places but multiple ways. So if we had done this maybe 10 years ago, I'm not sure we would have entirely gotten away with it, because I'm not sure people were acclimated to that degree of information at any one time.

MediaWorks: NBC recently ran a promo for "American Gangster" during an episode of "Heroes." Granted, the movie is being distributed by sibling Universal, but "Gangster" isn't something running on your air. Do you see a day when non-NBC Universal entities get to run ads in that space?

Mr. Miller: This has been a very interesting point. The only time that we've done that to date is when there has been a promo tied to an advertiser where we could still view it as a promo. We have not so far sold snipes. Now, could that happen? I suspect it could, but so far we have -- it's still promo space vs. sales space. In the case of ["American Gangster" and other movies from Universal], I have a couple of roles at NBC. ... I sort of control the cross-channel allocation for the company, and I co-chair that with Adam Fogelson of Universal Pictures, president of marketing and distribution at Universal. We have a calendar, and we try to focus in on one priority at a time. In the case of "American Gangster," that was the company's priority for that particular week, so we put "American Gangster" on there. I must tell you that those did seem to get a significant amount of attention. We did it a lot more this summer for "Evan Almighty" than we did for "American Gangster." And for some reason, that didn't get nearly the questioning. ... It is not something that we do often, utilizing the snipes for cross-channel.

MediaWorks: We've seen all kinds of new ideas for promos, including one NBC did with Honda that jointly marketed the company's cars as well as NBC's new fall season. Isn't this a sign that the traditional network promo has lost some steam?

Mr. Miller: No, not really. We are looking to take what we are doing and then perhaps do a little bit more, but the trailers which run during the credits and in most cases run at the end of the show, that is a very effective promotion, because you are talking to the viewer who has just watched an hour of that show and you're trying to entice them to come back next week. That's very important.

MediaWorks: For the last two years, CBS has perpetrated a range of promotional stunts, including ads on stickers for food you get at the deli, and on supermarket freezer doors, to gin up interest in its new fall season. What's your view on these gambits -- gimmick or viable promotional tool?

Mr. Miller: Here's the on-the-record answer: We're all looking for innovative ways to market our products to the American consumer. We try to reach them wherever and whatever way they can be, and sometimes we're successful and sometimes we're not.
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