By Mark J. Pescatore
They’ve become a fixture in television newscasts, apparently based on the assumption that the little logos in the corner of the screen called bugs would help viewers remember what station they’re watching. Now, there’s research to suggest that bugs do work, but they may not be any more effective than an old-fashioned station ID.
CNN initiated the use of bugs in the 1980s to prevent other broadcasters from using its news footage illegally. These days, bugs are used primarily for branding. Beyond station identification, some bugs also include time or weather information, while others promote upcoming programs. And graphics technology has improved over the years, so bugs don’t have to sit still in the corner; they can be animated and display changing information.
The lack of consistent bug use across the broadcast industry implies that systematic research hasn’t been conducted. My study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was designed to see if viewers recalled what station they had watched if a bug had been used for station identification. I also compared the effectiveness of bugs that had limited on-screen exposure to bugs that aired continuously, and compared the effectiveness of separate station identifications to bugs.
Different versions of an 8-minute program segment were shown to four experimental groups. The first version had a bug during the first 15 seconds of the program, the second tape sported a continuous bug throughout the program, the third tape started with a separate station identification and had no bug, and the fourth version, the control tape, had no station identification of any kind.
Subjects were told the experiment was an evaluation of the program itself. They were asked to watch the program segment, then complete a two-page “program analysis questionnaire” to provide feedback about the show and information about their general television viewing habits. One question asked participants: “Which channel were you watching?”
Participants in the experiment were 190 undergraduate students. Of course, when you use a convenience sample of college students, you run the risk of collecting a rather homogeneous population. That was the case here, and no significant differences were found with regard to age, gender, program enjoyment, or successful program name recall.
Participants in the study had definite attitudes toward bugs in general. Almost half of the subjects (47.9 percent) agreed that bugs are helpful, while about a third (36.3 percent) found them distracting. Despite such well-defined attitudes, however, this was not a successful predictor of channel recall.
More than 75 percent of subjects correctly identified the title of the program (it was an episode of Air Force Television News, a series which none of the subjects had previously seen). Of the 143 participants who had been exposed to some type of station identification, however, less than 20 percent correctly identified the channel.
As shown in Table 1, subjects that had seen the version with the 15-second bug fared worst, with about 8 percent correctly recalling the channel. Statistically, there was no difference between the 15-second bug group and the group that hadn’t seen an ID at all. More subjects correctly recalled the channel that had seen the version with a continuous bug (about 31 percent), but there was no significant difference between that group and the group that had seen the separate station identification at the beginning of the program segment.
These findings show that bugs are an effective method of promoting station recall, but only if they air continuously. What’s most surprising is that bugs weren’t necessarily more effective for channel recall than separate IDs.
This is the first reported experimental study specifically discussing bugs, so it should by no means be considered the final word. As previously noted, the study was limited by its use of a homogeneous population of students. In addition, the classroom setting of the experiment wasn’t exactly comparable to a typical family room, where television has to compete for attention with other household activities. The bug that was used in the experiment was also a rather generic, semi-transparent “TV3” logo, so it didn’t incorporate animation or crawling text. Finally, the experiment did not attempt to determine if bugs are effective as navigational tools for viewers as they flip between channels, nor did it measure audience tolerance levels for bugs or other excessive graphics.
That said, bugs do get noticed despite their secondary status on the television screen. Bugs that are shown briefly, however, are practically worthless from a channel recall perspective. If broadcasters choose to use a bug, the research suggests that it should be used constantly for maximum effectiveness.
TABLE 1: STATION RECOGNITION BY ID TYPE
|Subjects||15-second ID||Constant Bug||Station ID||No ID||Total|
- Mark J. Pescatore editor of Government Video magazine, earned his doctorate in mass communication from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his master’s degree in telecommunication and film from The University of Alabama. He is the co-editor of the second and third editions of The Guide to Digital Television, and has taught more than a dozen college-level communication courses.
- This report is adapted from a paper presented at the Broadcast Education Association annual convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, April 2002.