On Air Promos


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Even if you know that you're the best promo producer on the planet, it never hurts to revisit the basic rules once in a while.

the rules and the tools

Before we go on...understand that this is not a definitive rule book. This is a base for you to build from, to be become a better promo maker and to grow into something special so your family finally understands what it is that you do. My associates and I have been doing this for a while, and I can tell you that we're pretty damn good at it. This base is a few of the things we've learned, forgotten and relearned over the past few years. With that in mind, read on grasshopper.

It may seem like even though you do all this hard work, you are treated as the lowest on the television food chain. Relax, that's normal. Not nice...but normal. If you were in this for the money, you wouldn't be doing it to begin with. It's the same story everywhere, every station size, every country, every culture. I swear, some of the best promo producers I've worked with in the world work in market sizes under 150K. And even though they could kick supreme ass at some of the networks, they aren't interested in working in bigger markets...they like what they do where they do it just fine. But they all, without exception, understood the rules of the trade cold. If you want to be in their league, quit your whining and get on with being good at your job...and if you become great, then those offers of cash in the big city will come. But before you get there...first, a history lesson.

It wasn't all that long ago that your job would have been to promote selected programs, the 6:00 news, maybe a profile of the news team...and that would have been it. Although networks and stations had logos, they had no identity...no personality. Their personality was 'first-face'...through their on-air talent...whatever they were like, that's what the channel was like. That kind of thinking still exists in most television management today so that's why those folks on-air still get paid squillions more than you or I ever will. During that time, there were some very creative guys in our industry...not loads, but a few and you can still learn from them. NBC's peacock id for example..those three gong sounds in the audio track are 'g-e-c'...the same as General Electric Company...their owners way back when. Someone got a brown nose bonus for that...anyway, I digress.

Move up a few years to the early 80's and you have MTV. A whole different way of looking at promotion. Seems obvious now, but these were the first guys to promote the channel as well as the shows. Creating a personality, an identity, an environment that viewers could relate to. They broke the rules on everything...they had a logo that changed every time you saw it, they made fun of themselves, they talked directly to their audience. It worked so well, this industry was changed forever. Some good, some bad...but changed none the less.

Now your job is much, much harder. It's harder than any advertising writer's job, harder than any film maker's job, harder than your dad's job. Because...you have the same client and the same audience every day...and you have to make them both happy...every day...and you can never do it the same way twice. Promo producers are now responsible for the look, feel and taste of their channels. They are the spine. They are the ones who convey the channel's personality, the channel messages, they are the life-force. It's where it all starts and where it all ends.

Your job as a promo producer is now to build and support the brand identity of the channel...no matter what it is. When you understand that, then you understand the reason for the rules:

IDEA rules: No such thing. Ideas come from everywhere. from the smell of your socks to that strange dream you had last night about a goat in sexy underwear. The only idea rule there is...is how many of them you cram into your spot. Old rule of thumb is one idea...and one idea only. And hit it 3 times...open, middle and close. Your theme, your idea, should be clear and concise, not muddled up with a bunch of other tangents.

Scripts. I don't care what you say, I'm old school and I say every great promo starts with a great script. This is the chance where you get to put your ideas down on paper, where the ideas flow, where things meld so you can see thm in your head long before you get to an edit suite. You start with a script. Sure, your ideas may come from anywhere...watching the tape, magazines, movies, whatever...but the script is where its all going to come together.

Never over promise. Promos are the voice of your channel speaking to your audience. You promise something, you better deliver...otherwise you're lying...and despite what your sales guys say, lying is a bad thing.

Deal with the audience in the first person. Talk to them in their voice. Get on the same wavelength as your audience and connect with them. Help the audience feel ownership of the channel on their terms. Understand the key interests of your audience.

Personalize your message by addressing the audience directly. The more directly and actively you engage the audience, the more they'll pay attention. Use active dynamic language that invites the audience in.

Never use words like 'fun' 'wacky' 'cool'. Don't insult your audience's intelligence by telling them they should do something or buy something because it's fun. They get enough of that from really bad advertising. Instead of telling them, show them...give them a reason and let them decide for themselves.

Appeal to men and women equally. Unless you're a niche channel, you are presenting a product that should be enjoyed by both boys and gals. Some things will naturally appeal more to one sex than the other...but try to position it so that it doesn't exclude.

Never talk down to kids. Young people today see promotional messages everywhere they look. They are as savvy (if not more) about media as adults. Respect their sophistication. Never use a tone of voice that suggests you are smarter than they are. Never do anything that suggests you think they're dumb.

Stay away from peer pressure and other strong arm tactics. Earn the trust of your audience and never betray it.

NO bad English. While you're treating your audience with respect, don't use bad grammer. Stay away from slang unless it applies.

Don't be too wordy. Keep the message short and simple.

Anytime you can entertain with humour, do it.

Promote your channel AND the shows. Whenever you can position the channel as the source of your audience's entertainment, do it.

All elements need to work together. The writing, the soundbites, the voice over, the graphics and the visuals all have to work together to serve one idea in the spot.

Each spot is unique, each spot can stand alone. But each spot must blend with the channel environment, (told you it was a tough job)

Ask yourself why do we do things, do we need that effect? Do we need that soundbite? What is the logic of the spot? Does it go from A to B? Is the message getting through?

Use the point of someone who never watches...someone who tunes in for the first time. would they watch what you're promoting? Why/why not?

As you add production techniques, it may take the viewer's mind off the promo message and make them ask questions. If you introduce these questions, you better answer them.

All spots have a vision, a look, a feel...long before you go into session. See it in your head first. don't leave stuff until the last minute.

Take calculated risks. Try new approaches to the same ideas...make a change when it serves a purpose.

Less IS more. All action must have a purpose.

Plan out your spots. Use a storyboard even if you can't draw.

Get your spots perfect, not just get them done.

Craft your spot well enough that it can be seen over and over and over and over again...because it will be.

Music and voice over need to work together, never fight against each other. Never use lyric tracks under the v/o.

In pre-production, make the effort to go and talk to some of the people that may be helping you make the spot later. The editor, graphic artist, audio guy. Ask questions, get input. They'll appreciate it, and you'll learn something. Find the problems before they find you.

If you are directing a shoot, it's your role to deliver excellence from the talent and the crew. You can't blame anyone but yourself for poor performance. Take time to understand everyone's job...hell, read books on acting, directing, writing...learn and use.

Rules were made to be broken. If you're going to break them, make sure you're doing it in a way that leads your channel forward.


Is it unique? Is it true to your channel's philosophy and positioning? Does it capture your channel's attitude? Could this play on any other channel?

Does it fulfill the goals you set out to achieve?

Is there an emotional response? Does it make you feel something? Anything?

Is it honest? Does it deliver the goods you say it does? Does it avoid over-hyping and over-promising?

Is it fresh and new? have you tried something different from how its been done before? Taken a risk?

Is it interactive? Does it promote activity, engage the audience to do something, to want to do something/spend time with your channel?

Is it top quality? The best you could do with what you have to work with?

Does it have broad appeal? Does it appeal to both sexes? Lots of age groups?

Did you screw up the logo?

Is it from the viewer's point of view?


Time for a little philosophy. Doing great promo work comes down to 3 things.

Vision to understand the core identity of your channel and make it the foundation on which all of your work rests.

Passion to create something which is going to make people sit up and listen.

Craft. Using your talent and skills to execute your task in a fresh and different way...to the very best of your ability.

Ok..now we have the basic rules out of the way. If I haven't bored you too much and you're ready to go deeper, lets see if there's something we can help you with.

BRANDING AND DESIGN THEORY perspective and positioning