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Credits where credits are due – online

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The issue of ‘credit squeezing’ at the end of television programmes has long been a pain for industry professionals and the public at large. It comes as no real surprise that Dame Judi Dench has been among those irritated by the practice, which caused her to write to the then director-general of the BBC.

Early last year, Equity published a survey whose 10,000 respondents – not limited to members of the union – showed extreme dissatisfaction with the squeezing of credits:

  • 95.2% said splitting the screen at the end of a programme or otherwise squeezing the credits made them harder to read
  • 88.7% said that credit squeezing made them ‘very annoyed’.

The main purpose for reducing the credits is, it seems, to promote programmes, channels or other services that the broadcaster concerned wants to entice viewers to consume. Sky has recently vowed to stop the practice, although a source told The Stage’s Ben Dowell (in a feature available in this week’s print edition):

Sky is not navigated as much. It is creeping to a more on-demand model so they can stop boxing [reducing the credits to a smaller on screen box] as linear schedules are not as important to them. The BBC needs to attract big ratings and stop people switching.

Each of the main broadcasters has end credit guidelines that they ensure all programme producers, whether in-house or independent, adhere to. ITV’s guidelines (available as a PDF from the ITV Commissioning website) start with three stated aims that surely sum up the inherent balancing act:

A. To give recognition on-screen to those who make a substantial contribution to the making of a programme;
B. To maximise the available airtime for content while at the same time keeping the overall length of credits to sensible levels;
C. To facilitate integration of closing credits with ITV Promotion trailers and/or other ITV Presentation announcements.

ITV and Channel 4 set out on-screen grids that allow credits to run at their agreed size whether other promos are displaying or not. All end credits on Channel 4, for example, play out on the left hand side of the screen, so the presentation department can overlay other graphics on the right.

The BBC, though, physically reduces the size of the credits by 60% and crops the frame, meaning that names are both smaller and are on screen for a shorter amount of time. Recent promises that at least one episode of a drama or comedy series will not be squeezed show that there’s recognition that the BBC’s current approach is a problem.

In the same article for The Stage, Dowell also says that Ben Stephenson, controller of BBC drama commissioning,

…says he does not have a view, as it is not part of his job to decide whether they are aired, but that personally speaking he believes that, since credits are widely available online, “the audience is served”.

I’ve added the emphasis above, as I’ve found that to historically not be the case. The BBC has quietly improved massively in this regard, though. I’ve always been impressed with the way their website structure under the /programmes/ URL catalogues and indexes the wide array of TV and radio content, allowing for the addition of background information, clips, galleries and more. Over the last few years, it’s grown into a system whereby key shows can have a strong visual identity that reflects their onscreen source material, without requiring expensive custom website builds.

Until recently, though, you would be very lucky if an episode of a drama series was accompanied by anything more in the way of text than a short prose summary. But prompted by Stephenson’s comments, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how much cast information is now available. So the page for last Sunday’s episode of Ripper Street lists 21 actors. Offscreen crew are not so lucky, with only three names – writer, director and producer – credited.

On programme pages, the names are little more than text – although HTML geeks like me will notice that the pages, including the credits, are marked up with a structured ‘ontology’, which uses a number of different XML schemas to indicate what each element of text and/or imagery on each page actually represents in the real world (more information can be found at the BBC’s ontologies page). So to the human eye, it’s just a list: but an enterprising geek could quite easily write a little browser plugin that made actors’ names clickable, which could take you to their IMDb page, their Spotlight profile, or even an Amazon search for DVDs they also appear in.

Indeed, on the same episode of Ripper Street’s page on the iPlayer site, the cast list – which is powered by the same database – makes each actor clickable, to search iPlayer for other programmes that actor has performed in.

You can’t do that with telly credits.

I must admit that when I started searching the internet, I was convinced that Stephenson was wrong – but found out that, for the BBC at least, he was right. For non-BBC productions, though, online credits are a patchy rarity. Outside the channel broadcasters themselves, many production companies’ websites are shockingly light on information.

Given that indies have to generate credits lists for the programmes that they are commissioned to make, would it really be too hard for them to put those lists online, too?

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