TRAC's Rating Service
Programming the Breaks

Public broadcasters assume TV breaks are important because they're a chance to talk to our viewers for "free" and they make money from underwriters. But are they really important and effective? Do programming promos work? Are the underwriters getting what they pay for?

Learning Theory Lessons

Many of us have not thought about Psychology 101 since college. But plumb the depths of your memory. Remember learning theory? It's important because learning theory is what breaks are all about. How and what should people learn during breaks? How are breaks supposed to make viewers feel and act?

Breaks are very different from the programs they surround. Programs have beginnings, middles and ends. Programs can be informative, entertaining and enticing. A break is just time. The Federal Communications Commission requires a "legal ID" for the station; the rest of the break is up to the development and promotion folks.

Some expectations about breaks are probably unrealistic. Learning theory suggests that within seconds, 90 to 95 percent of the viewers will forget specific information (such as what is on "NOVA" tomorrow night or that Gator Culvert underwrites "Washington Week.") If the message is new, say the first time a company's underwriting credits appear, viewer's recall of the message is less than 1 percent.

There are perhaps two reasons for this. First, most of us have conditioned our senses to screen out breaks. Second, items in a break have no cognitive association -- they are like string of nonsense syllables. Both of these conditions reduce learning.

What is a break trying to "teach?" We are trying to get the viewer to pay attention, ingest information, and remember it: Pictures and sounds try to draw viewers' attention while the promo tries to provide information about tomorrow's "NOVA" episode. Given all the distractions during a break, we expect little learning from one exposure.

People need three messages before they become aware of them and remember what they've said. The three-hit theory has a long history in advertising lore and theory. But it isn't infallible. We can all think of exceptions, when a single, salient message made a promotion work. Stay-tuned announcements and billboards can be examples of single trial learning. And the three-hit theory doesn't guarantee action, either: Learning can occur with three exposures, but he viewer may still choose to do nothing.

Just as too little exposure to a message makes learning difficult, too much exposure can be deadly. Satiation can even make people feel negative about an advertiser and the product (including our overused fund-raising spots and campaigns).

The Mechanics of a Break

Using learning theory, research data and mythology, assume we can make breaks better and more efficient. Where would we start?

First, we assume the station has collected the appropriate data about dayparts and seasonally-available audience and that development and promotion folks use it to plan breaks. (The Nielsen books are still the best source of such data.) Second, there is a plan/strategy at the station for promoting programs and programming and development departments have defined their turf regarding the breaks. Third, the station has its "image package" -- how it looks on air, in its publications and letterhead.

Clearly, these three givens determine a lot about how a station's breaks will look. but there are other elements to consider.

We think each station may benefit from a musical signature -- like the NBC chimes -- that identifies it in viewers' minds. Music has affect, it cuts through verbiage an is appealing.

Stations will vary on attitude (and ability) to begin the break with a voice-over during the closing credits of the ending program. If the station decides to do voice-overs and musical IDs, the musical signature would begin the voice-over to alert viewers that the station is beginning a break. Most voice-overs say the upcoming program's title and something about content. But nothing prevents the announcer from also promoting other compatible programs. Some networks have their "stars" or "talent" promo shows (Bryant Gumbel doing voice-overs for the "Today" show the night before). The conventional wisdom behind voice-overs is to reach the viewers before they switch or leave the room.

Is the effort work it? No research about voice-overs has been forthcoming. But learning theory tells us that to be effective, voice-overs must be simple, short and clear statements that viewers can hear and understand instantly. We are expecting too much from the voice-overs in the cluttered public TV break environment. We must clean up the air to make our voice-overs work. Another hint: Vice-overs for the upcoming program work best, making sure that any learning that occurs can be used immediately.

First or Last?

Psychological theory tells us that the spots or announcements people are most likely to remember are the first (primacy) and the last (recency) in a break. "People meter" data tell us that if content or aesthetics of the initial announcement in a break is a disaster, people won't pay attention to the remaining announcement. So the safest place for an important announcement is first in the line-up.

But when does the break begin? With the voice-over? When the PBS logo comes on? Before or after that cluster of local underwriting announcements that directly follow a program? If the viewer thinks the break begins with those local underwriting announcements, then we are in trouble--because by regulation and convention, most of those spots are bland and aesthetically sterile. Those underwriting spots probably cause tune-out as much as any other single element in the schedule.


Viewers of the Discovery Channel or Arts & Entertainment rarely associate all of the tacky 1-800 ads and questionable oils that grow hair (anywhere) with these channels. Viewers isolate the ads from the program service (or channel).

It may be good to distance the station's image from the underwriting spots.

Public TV is urged to develop similar "bracketing." Why? Because local underwriting spots are silting up breaks. In focus groups around the country, members say that public TV's noncommercialism and its program diversity and quality are what they most like. They also say that local stations don't need money badly because so many "big companies" support the programs. And underwriting credits threaten audience flow between programs and probably hinder the transmission of other important messages during station breaks.

So it may be good to distance the station's image from the underwriting spots. Conceptually, we want to condition viewers to separate a station's identity and its program promotion materials from the underwriting clutter. How?

Use full-screen mattes that cocoon the station's ID materials and promos. (This is one of those time when a picture is worth a thousand words). When the bracket starts, a continuing on-air matte covers the screen, and the station keys in its call letters and channel number for the duration of the non-underwriting promos and announcements. Like the hole in a doughnut, the promos and other promotion material are inserted in the hole created by the matte. While stations differ on this, we like to see a billboard start the bracket, telling the viewers what's on tonight.

What is a bracket primary purpose? To condition the viewer, through continued exposure, to a set of messages that contain as much affect as fact about the station. What is the message? One that details the station's value to the community. The bracket will do little program promotion beyond the voice-over and the billboard. Use the remaining time to extol the station's virtues.

Why propose something so radical as station PR rather than more program promotion during breaks? Because we need to counteract what's come from increased underwriting announcements. Because we need to reinforce "quality" and "value" ideals to our viewers and members. And because research data indicate that an ongoing image campaign is more likely to succeed than other "stray" or single messages we often attempt during breaks.

Why do we say this? Consider how folks watch public TV. Most view once or twice a month at best. Most watch a single type of program, such as science or drama. (We do have a small cadre of heavy viewers, but we could not drive them away with sticks much less bad breaks, so we won't worry about them.) What does that mean for on-air promotion?

It means there isn't a lot of repeat viewing in the audience, and that a three-hit theory isn't applicable. Given the high amount of turnover -- only 15 to 30 percent of the audience will stay tuned for the next program -- you don't find many viewers attending the whole break. And you have a profusion of isolated promotional messages and puerile underwriting statements and messages obfuscating the break. In this difficult environment, a cluster of program promos lashed to a number of underwriting spots is about as memorable as a psychologist's string of nonsense syllables.

But let's look at our proposed bracketed break. Voice-overs can talk about upcoming shows while the underwriting credits roll or immediately following a musical ID to get the benefit of primacy. Then comes a bracketed message that is station-oriented. The recent effect of our proposed bracketed break (if there is one), will be a message about the station and public TV. Given the difficult environment and the low probability of viewers seeing, much less remembering, the spots, an image campaign extolling the station's virtues can be cycled through breaks for months before satiating the audience.