Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Wow. You guys are angry. I mean mad as hell, and you're not going to take it anymore. Or has someone already said that?

Both Family Guy and Saturday Night Live last week ragged on pop-up promos, those annoying little graphics for upcoming shows that wedge themselves over your favorite programs. There's an article in the Chicago Tribune today joining in the rage. And I understand.

The industry slang for these things is "snipe." It's a simple technique; all you do is key in a source with the snipe material in the lower edge of the picture at the master control level. It's the same as when you see "This just in: a tornado warning has been issued..." or sports scores crawling, only this is promotional, not instructive. The recent innovations that have led to these things sprouting up like video weeds is: computers dedicated to doing nothing else but inserting snipes, and master control boards capable of keying in four or more sources over the main program source. That's right. I can, and occasionally do, lay in FOUR MORE THINGS over your favorite show. Some of them with sound.

Example: It's a Wednesday night, and Law and Order is on. As the show enters it's second segment after the first network commercial break, it is 10:09PM. I already have our local station's "crystal bug" keyed in on keyer #1. A "crystal" graphic is transparent, thus you can see it, but see through it and still see what's going on behind it, even though it's pretty small to begin with. The "crystal bug" is put there in part at the insistence of NBC to remind you that you are watching NBC on your local channel, but also to, and this is important, to discourage piracy. This is really important during sporting events that can end up on YouTube in five minutes. A local bug appearing on YouTube can help NBC/Universal track the pirates to their lair. Argh!

So, one source is already keyed over at the local level, when somebody at 30 Rock hits a button and starts keying in their own snipe. The peacock turns from crystal to solid color, and if the local station is doing their keying just right, it appears that the crystal bug changed right before your eyes. A banner opens up across the bottom of the screen, and we're told that we're watching Law and Order now - no shit, Sherlock - and coming soon it's America's Got Talent! As these things go, NBC seems to have the least offensive promotional snipes in the biz, with a general lack of images, moving or otherwise, and no sound. Of course, NBC is still waiting for Cheers to come back, and they've never really recovered from CBS stealing Jack Benny, so give them time.

As this is happening, the Wilmington, Ohio office of the National Weather Service has just issued a Breeze Warning for Wherethefugarewe County. Following our policy of keeping you informed with the News You Can Use, from the Station Where News is First, Live, and Local, with Late Breaking Developments, On-the-Spot Reporting, from reporters who Know the Miami Valley, we are honor bound in master control to activate the second keyer and insert a Weather Alert graphic in the upper left corner of the screen.

So, you now have 2 local key-overs, plus the network snipe... and for the first ten minutes of Law and Order the actual film of the show itself will continue to drop in their own title graphics telling us who wrote, directed, produced, executive produced, catered, and groomed Ice T's goatee. Somewhere underneath all this is a dead body - at least that's the inference I get from the dialogue.

Then, after the local break at 10:30ish, and I'm not making this up, I am required to use the keyer #3 to insert a local snipe about the transition to Digital Television. This not my idea. The FCC demands that we do this. Yes, that's right. The government is adding to the clutter. But is that really much of a surprise? I have to wait for my cue on the NBC timing sheet to insert this snipe, in order to prevent my local snipe from interfering with the network's snipes. I swear, I'm not making this up!

Put this same senario into an episode of Dateline, and we add keyer #4, the keyer that inserts the columns of fill graphics along the sides of the screen during standard definition 4:3 ratio programming. Viola! I've just maxed out our master control board. There are four things going on the air, and somewhere underneath it all is your favorite show.

We get complaints about other things, like commercials. One common question: "Why do you have to run that annoying song for cable TV over and over?"

Simple answer: Because the cable company pays us to do it. Same thing goes for all the other commercials. But I think the real question you're asking is, "Why do advertisers use the most annoying music ever foisted on a group of humans since the Waco Compound?"

Ever notice how a train whistle sounds? Or car horns? Or any other warning device? Those things are pitched out of tune on purpose in order to get your attention. (For you musicians reading this, they use augmented 4ths, diminished 5ths, minor 7ths, and chromatic steps. In other words, dissonance. Hey, it worked for Mozart. FYI: The old EBS tone still used in EAS emergencies is really two tones at half-step intervals.) Pretty harmonies won't wake you up and stick in your brain. Think of the first line of The Beatles' Michelle. What the heck is that chord when Paul sings "Ma belle?" You remember that, don't you? The difference is that McCartney is using the technique of tension and release to create one of the the most popular songs of all time. Advertisers use lots of tension with little, if any, release to jangle your nerves. A woman singing above her range in a whining voice while the musicians seem to be playing in another key grabs your ear and won't let go. The current state of pop music feeds this machine quite well. The ad agency geniuses who dream this stuff up hope it leaves a memorable impression. Based on the number of bitch calls we get, it apparently works.

Finally, we reach into the mail bag for this real letter from a concerned citizen. Here is an unretouched excerpt:

dear w*** at what point does it stop the filthy things you allow over the air I was watching my name is earl the other night for a few minutes and the flithy things so we have to start a boycott of your advertizers

I swear to God, that's real.

OK. Sir or madam, in respectful response to your letter... You only watched a few minutes of My Name is Earl? You didn't give us a fair chance. You needed to watch the whole show, and then The Office, and then Southland. Next, you needed to watch our late night lineup, starting with the monologue on The Tonight Show. Then you needed to catch Saturday Night Live. Had you watched a fair representation of our programming, you would've realized that we hadn't begun to offend you. Besides, how could you see anything objectionable through all our snipes and inserts?

Damn! There's only one solution to this problem... We'll add more snipes.

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