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Look what's popping up on your favorite TV shows

Networks are using subtitles to help viewers find their way amid the plot twists.

March 16, 2011|By T. L. Stanley, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Glenn Close, left, and Rose Byrne in a scene from the TV series "Damages," with subtitles added.
Glenn Close, left, and Rose Byrne in a scene from the TV series "Damages,"… (DIRECTV.com )

At the beginning of the complicated legal thriller "Damages," a battered and bloody young woman named Ellen Parsons demands a lawyer from a seat in a police interrogation room. In flashbacks, this same brunet is shown fending off an attacker and then stumbling onto a gory scene of a butchered loved one.

Confused?

Check the bottom of the screen. There you'll find some helpful hints that work like a cross between "Pop-Up Video" and CliffsNotes and signal a new way that networks are starting to give viewers a quick entree into complex shows. "Ellen is being held as a suspect in the murder of her fiancé, David Connor," says the first info bite, which is then followed by, "Ellen hasn't yet told the police she was attacked in Patty's apartment the same day her fiancé was killed."

The on-screen subtitles function as a primer of sorts, appearing every few minutes to flesh out a twisty plot turn or reveal a character's sinister motives. Taking a page from ABC's "Lost," satellite service DirecTV has recently started airing these enhanced versions of "Damages" on its 101 Network and the clues come from a true insider: a writer on the first three seasons of the show.

The approach, coupled with a dedicated website, made sense for a show that can be tough to follow, DirecTV executives said, especially at a time when TV audiences are easily distracted by gadgets and other entertainment.

"It's a way to say to viewers, 'It's not too late to get involved in this show,'" said Paul Guyardo, DirecTV's chief marketing officer. "And it might keep new viewers from throwing in the towel if they can watch episodes that give them extra background and context."

And there may be more transmedia outreach coming, given the fierce competition for viewers and the sky-high cost of TV production. Networks, cable channels and premium services are rolling out eye-catching ways to help their shows break through, such as tickers on the bottom third of the screen and live question-and-answer sessions via Twitter.

Syfy has created extended vignettes on its channel and several websites that put a new twist on typical "previously seen on" clips. The minutes-long recaps of "Being Human," its new supernatural series, give a cheeky lowdown on its resident vampire, werewolf and ghost, pointing out their past lives, otherworldly frenemies and unfortunate hairstyles.

The cable channel did the same for mythology-heavy shows "Caprica" and "Battlestar Galactica," with the latter's attitude-laced recaps dubbed, "What the Frak Happened?" after the series' favorite swear word.

"We want to fill in the blanks for viewers," said Blake Callaway, Syfy's senior vice president, marketing, brand and strategy. "This is a way to bring them up to speed with a bite-sized piece of entertainment that they can quickly absorb."

Fox tested the waters with something it called a "Tweet-peat," where producers and cast members from "Fringe" answered fan questions on-screen and gave behind-the-scenes scoop on the complex sci-fi show's parallel universes.

AMC launched an online motion comic ahead of its premiere last fall of the zombiefest "The Walking Dead," aiming to spread the apocalyptic concept to genre fans and those unfamiliar with the show's origins as a cult-favorite comic book. The show's six-episode first season broke ratings records for the network.

Starz recently launched a free iPad application for "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" that includes show scripts and historical background on gladiators and ancient Rome, and the CW puts its young talent to work on its website giving back story on layered dramas such as the bestseller-based "Vampire Diaries."

ABC, a pioneer in the area, started airing enhanced versions of "Lost" late in the island drama's run to answer those viewers who'd said they were hopelessly, well, lost in the convoluted, time-shifting story. (The network also used the tactic for "Ugly Betty" when it switched nights). For another weighty show, the sci-fi "V," ABC put together a one-hour prime-time special last year that walked viewers through the show's complicated world, similar to "Lost's" clip shows.

The tactics can serve dual purposes: they cater to the so-called superfan who seeks out every piece of intel on a series. They can also draw in the uninitiated, those who might've missed earlier episodes and feel too far out of the loop to join the audience midstream without a boost. There's been little or no backlash from watchers, who network execs say are savvy enough to handle info bites on-screen after seeing them constantly on news and sports channels.

DirecTV, trying to grab a foothold in original programming and stand out from the premium pack, picked up "Damages" from cable channel FX, where its fervent but small audience and Emmy wins weren't enough to keep it on the schedule. The satellite service plans to air the existing three seasons, with enhanced repeats, in the run-up to new episodes it's financing and launching this summer.

Glenn Kessler, the drama's executive producer at KZK Productions, said enhanced episodes relieve some of the pressure for viewers inundated with options and strapped for time.

"If I haven't watched religiously, it's a solution for me as an audience member," Kessler said. "It makes me feel like I'm being tended to, and I'm less likely to move on to another show."

calendar@latimes.com

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