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The Power of the Spoken Word. Speak up or Shut up!

A year or so ago, my business partner and I were invited to speak at a broadcast marketing conference in Western Europe. Whilst waiting prior to our session a fellow speaker espoused the various elements of the ‘on-air’ marketing tool kit that TV broadcasters have at hand these days, having adapted to the technological advancement of their ‘play-out’ suites; ‘Squeeze backs’, Bugs, IPPs, Elevators , Line-ups, Lower Thirds, Upper Thirds, Scrolls... and many more with equally confusing names to the uninformed, depending on the capability of the play-out kit and where they reside in the world. Whilst to many in the audience that day, the role of and purpose of these many on-screen promotional tools was not enlightening, my colleague and I were quite taken aback when the speaker described a further element of the on-air process as being the ‘British trend’, or something similar. The element of which he was describing was in fact that of ‘continuity announcements’.

To some of you reading this who may not be as familiar with broadcasting as others, continuity announcements are those words that many of you (more if you reside in the UK) listen to each and every evening between programmes; whether it is live, or pre-recorded as most networks tend now to use. You would miss them if they were no longer used, they provide, yes, the continuity of the programme schedule. Although a little surprised in the association of continuity announcers with being UK focussed, upon reflection and from our experience of working in over thirty markets at JWM, we quickly realised that this was probably a fair label. We had not realised that something that we had grown up with over the years whilst watching TV, whether it be the big former terrestrial only services or others, was a very British entity that many markets had not taken to or indeed at one time had relinquished.

Since recognising this scenario, we have found a real interest from many markets in continuity announcers as we have worked with broadcasters to maximise their own on-air messaging with their viewers. From Scandinavia to South Africa, Latin America to India to Australia and the GCC, the realisation that tailored spoken continuity can dramatically benefit a channel or a broadcast portfolio in their communication to their viewers has become far greater. The benefit that voice can offer has actually increased- an anomaly surely in the changing television of today given that it was first utilised at the industry’s outset almost 70 years ago.

It is fair to say that Continuity Announcers are perhaps going through a renaissance at the moment as the value in what they offer is becoming increasingly recognised in helping broadcasters ‘personalise’ communication with audiences, this despite TV becoming a more passive medium given the escalation of digital fragmentation. So why is this the case?

Perhaps Rudyard Kipling was right when he said "Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind."

Life, both its pleasures and sorrows resonate through the use of the spoken word – speech is a development that only humans have been intelligent enough to develop, and this itself has been the key driver in our ability to become what we are today.

So what are the key and perhaps changing roles for a Continuity Announcer? In the past, for many broadcasters, they were very much the ‘glue’ and the ‘safety net’ for live broadcasting. I’m sure we’ve all seen library footage of often bespectacled, tie wearing middle aged men reading scripts ‘in-vision’, live to the camera in ‘clipped’ tones. In fact Sky Atlantic, here in the UK, very recently creatively reproduced a scene with such a ‘fellow’ filmed in black and white, introducing the launch of its drama series Mr Sloane set in the 1960s! It’s not just Sky in the UK that invest in getting their voice right, all of the major and many of the smaller broadcasters do too.

We say that there are 4 key tasks for the role of continuity announcements:

  1. Audience Engagement

  2. Audience Navigation

  3. Social Media Enhancement

  4. Branding

In the first of these, a professional Continuity Announcer should be able to address a channel’s audience as if they were actually present in the room with the viewer. This skill allows a TV channel to personalise its communication with its audience, rather than just be a conveyer of information (usually for what’s coming up next or later in the schedule). They can engage with the viewer, reflecting the channel’s desired brand personality through the tone and language used, often helping to contemporise the situation. Sympathy can be portrayed in the voice after grief stricken drama; enthusiasm after talent shows; celebration or disappointment after national events, sporting or otherwise, each tone representative of the mood of the viewer at that given time. As Confucius said "Words are the voice of the heart".

Secondly, there is the growing realisation amongst broadcasters that on average around 40% of a programme’s audience leaves within the first minute of the end of a show. In order to give themselves the best opportunity to retain these viewers, either on the channel or at least within their wider portfolio of services, they must deliver a relevant message as soon as the end credits of a programme begins. Whether continuity announcements are used over End Credit Squeezes; to navigate viewers to what’s coming up next, later or to another part of the broadcaster portfolio, or over channel idents; often the ‘landing strip’ for viewers who have settled to watch the immediate next programme, the method in which they address the audience is as important as the information given itself.

Next, one of the factors in the resurgence of the ‘voice’, is almost certainly due to the omnipresence of social media and the role that it plays within TV, and to some degree the necessity of TV to provide highly visual content and stories of interest that social media itself feeds off. Twitter, second screens, programme Apps, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat amongst many others provide opportunities for viewer engagement and hopefully enhance TV content. There is no better method to deliver this associated interactive opportunity than through the announcer – not just to let the viewer know what is available but also how they can engage.

The last key role for continuity announcements is that of branding, which has also become more important in recent years. With increased viewer choice, both within the linear and non-linear TV world, often sharing the same content or at least programme franchises, it is critical that a broadcaster stamps its own personality on its content and in doing so provide a unique viewing experience for its audience. There is no better branding element to help do this than via voice itself and the spoken word.

Upon deciding that voice is important, the next question is whether it should be live or pre-recorded. There is little doubt in my mind that live continuity is superior to that of recorded. However the ability to contemporise the situation at any given time that live offers, needs to be weighed up by the normally much greater cost occurred than is the case with pre–recorded continuity. As I write today, the Princess of Cambridge has just given birth to her second child, a daughter; I’m sure up and down the land there are continuity announcer action plans going into overdrive as how best to use words this evening to celebrate such an opportune and momentous national event – live will always win out in such a scenario.

Perhaps partly influenced by the store that we place in voice, we have seen both a marked increase in the interest of continuity announcers resulting in several instances of our broadcast clients actually introducing or reverting back to the use of this communication method. One piece of advice that we give broadcasters on their use of continuity announcers is that they should concentrate their resource where they are likely to get the biggest return. This often results in live continuity in prime time only, with pre-recorded outside of it. Additional advice that we often give, which at first is sometimes questioned, is for them to concentrate their live efforts on what may be a smaller channel within their portfolio, but one that has an audience profile that is younger than others. Research has shown that younger audiences are a lot more promiscuous with their viewing habits than others, relying much more than older viewers on immediate navigation to decide what to watch next. Similarly it is this audience that is more likely to engage with and also expect complementary social media with their TV offering. Live voice delivers on both accounts.

Whichever route a broadcaster takes with regard to their use of voice, it is essential that all given messages across a channel are complementary to each other. So whether its Voice, Trailers, In Programme Pointers (IPPs) or any other ‘Secondary Event’, we recommend that they their planning is always done by one central team. This is usually an on-air media planning team whose role it is to lead the viewer through a break, an evening or even a week on their channel, utilising the various tools that they have at their disposal.

Finally, once a broadcaster decides upon having continuity announcements it’s essential that their delivery is optimum. Long winded over scripted deliveries can kill the flow of a break and defeat the purpose of using voice in the first place.

As Plato wrote; "Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they have to say something."

Please feel free to give feedback on the above opinion piece. Should you be interested in exploring how JWM could possibly help your broadcast organisation then please contact us

Alan James May 2015



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