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Here's something else to snipe about on TV

As if there aren't enough annoyances on the tube, now come the distracting promos called 'snipes.'

August 28, 2004|Mark Caro | Chicago Tribune

Oliver Stone's "The Doors" is reaching a fever-dream climax, with Jim Morrison/Val Kilmer about to screech what he wants to do to his mother amid the ominous throb of "The End," when the bottom third of the screen explodes in a lime-green flash.

Talk about your bad trips: It's an on-screen promo for "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

OK, so maybe that's what you get for watching "The Doors" on Bravo in the first place. Bravo used to skim the cream of the art-film coffee, but that was before the network added commercials and got bought by NBC.

Now it's home to "Celebrity Poker Showdown," "West Wing" reruns, "Queer Eye" and "Inside the Actors Studio With the Latest Shilling Star." And its intent is to remind you of this fact even while you're watching a movie.

The device -- the visual equivalent of playing the "I'm lovin' it!" jingle over a radio hit -- is called a "snipe" and it's far from unique to Bravo. If you've been watching the Olympics, you've regularly been assaulted by these distracting promos popping onto the screen to inform you that, say, in 29 minutes you'll get to watch Brian Brianson compete in the 200-meter double-relay potpourri medley.

The other broadcast and cable networks use them, too, most often to tell you what show you're watching (oh, so this is "Trading Spouses"!) or to plug upcoming programs. Vivi Zigler, NBC senior vice president for advertising services, said the practice predates TiVo, which allows viewers to skip traditional ads.

"Most television stations did that originally to inform viewers who have Nielsen diaries," Zigler said. "Our evidence still shows that people really appreciate it, especially when it informs you what's coming up next."

Viewers, of course, have a high tolerance for annoyance because we're so rarely offered the alternative. We've been conditioned to accept those network-identifying "bugs" (a.k.a. logos) that occupy a corner of the screen with ever-increasing prominence.

We can't watch any cable news or sports network without having to process those incessant, repetitive text crawls. Now the rest of the screen is up for sale as well.

A sponsor logo is regularly snuggled amid the graphics of the weather segment on the newscast at Chicago's WMAQ-TV. Sports producers are mastering the art of electronically inserting ads onto playing fields as well as the screen. And product placement in movies and TV shows continues to grow more prominent.

"There's a certain rudeness in the way media is developing in that there used to be a pause for a word from the sponsor," said Jim Naureckas, editor of Extra, the magazine of the national media watch group FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). "Now the interruption is more of the mode. Having the ad break into the programming to get between you and what you're trying to watch is perhaps a more effective way of getting your attention, but it's also a more antagonistic strategy because it's trying to stop you from looking at what you're trying to look at."

But Zigler, who until recently worked at Bravo, said no one's complaining about the snipes. "Typically we don't interrupt the scene and do something invasive," she explained.

The Directors Guild of America, which is about to begin its usually thorny contract negotiations with Hollywood's studios and producers, had no comment on whether snipes compromise a film's integrity. Then again, given that the current guild contract already allows networks to crop, edit and interrupt its movies, the group probably has little room to complain.

Stone, busy in post-production on "Alexander," also declined comment through a spokesman. But director Neil LaBute ("In the Company of Men") was happy to let 'er rip.

"I think it's pretty horrible, like putting a Burger King crown on Michelangelo's David -- about that subtle and about that enticing," he said.

So far the snipes have focused on promoting programming rather than outside sponsors, but can't you feel that slope getting slippery?

"Can I see a time in which [sponsors] would ask for that?" Zigler said. "Yes. But I have a hard time picturing that [NBC Entertainment President] Jeff Zucker would do something like that over our product -- that's an example of our management having respect for our viewers."

But it doesn't seem a stretch to envision a day when a movie airs on TV, and messages will pop up telling viewers where to buy the soundtrack, the featured car, the star's clothes and, just for kicks, the latest sexual-enhancement medication.

And no one will complain. If anyone is still watching.

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