`Snipes': Sneaky promo ads are popping up all over TV

August 31, 2004|By Mark Caro | Mark Caro,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Oliver Stone's The Doors is reaching a fever-dream climax, with Jim Morrison/Val Kilmer about to screech something about his mother amid the 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 got bought by NBC.

Now it's home to Celebrity Poker, West Wing reruns, Queer Eye and Inside the Actor's Studio. 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 McDonald's "I'm lovin' it!" jingle over a radio hit - is called a "snipe" and it's far from unique to Bravo. If you watched the Olympics, you regularly were assaulted by these distracting promos popping onto the screen to inform you that, say, in 29 minutes you'd 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 or to plug coming 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."

You 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.

Sports producers are mastering the art of electronically inserting ads onto playing fields as well as the screen.

"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 FAIR, the magazine of the national media-watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

But Zigler said no one's complaining about the snipes. "Typically, we don't interrupt the scene and do something invasive," she said.

The Directors Guild of America had no comment on whether snipes compromise a film's integrity.

So far the snipes have focused on promoting programming rather than outside sponsors, but is the 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 ... ."

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