Taking the unease out of squeeze

In many parts of the world, television advertising is strictly controlled. The EU sets a limit of 20 percent per hour. Member states set further limits. As an example, in the UK, the regulator OFCOM dictates that for the primary terrestrial networks, advertisements must be dispersed into breaks lasting no more than an average of seven minutes per hour in total.

Although this might still sound generous, channels do of course need to promote their own content. They must do this without adversely affecting the revenue they can generate from the precious advertising space they can offer. Even with the rise of pay-per-view and subscription services, commercial broadcasters continue to rely heavily on the advertisement revenue stream — and every advertising slot occupied by a program promotion is money lost.

Advertisements can be forbidden from appearing within any actual program content, including credit sequences, which broadcasters are obliged to transmit. This rule does not apply to program promotions, though.

Enter the squeeze-back. Now a staple of the viewing experience, squeeze-backs typically occur during the end-credit sequence of programs as squeeze and tease promotions. The credit screen minimizes to one side, while a promotion of forthcoming features appears on the other.

Beyond squeeze and tease

Of course, squeeze-backs have applications in addition to resolving how to maximize advertising real estate. State broadcasters and others not dependent on advertising revenues use them; they don't just appear at the end of programs. And their purpose is far more than simply saving time: They can communicate channel values and be fundamental to broadcaster branding.

For example, squeeze-and-tease promotions can be found on state broadcasters' channels to retain audience attention during what is to anyone outside the broadcast industry a less entertaining few minutes. This use is increasingly pertinent as the terrestrial channels broaden their offerings to the digital platform and cross-promote their offerings. The implicit message to choice-spoilt viewers is: If you're going to channel-hop at the end of the program, at least jump to another one of ours.

For commercial channels, this is a proactive audience retention strategy that can help attract advertisers. After all, they need to know their significant investment in air-time is actually going to be seen.

The use of squeeze-backs within programs too is important for optimizing viewer experience. In news programs, links between the studio anchor and field reporter appear more fluid when combined into single screen, and squeeze-backs are a common method of achieving this.

Also consider situations when news such as a severe weather warning breaks during a popular entertainment show. The emerging method of choice for communicating it is to squeeze the program back to announce the new story rather than the traditional, “We interrupt this program …”.

The use of squeeze-backs itself communicates a lot to the viewer about the channel's personality. It suggests the broadcaster values the audience's time and understands what it prefers to watch. In addition, the layout, color-schemes and other over-laid graphics as part of the squeeze-back reinforce branding and the on-air look.

And how

The business and creative needs for squeeze-backs are clear. Yet there are technical implications. In fact, the process of creating squeeze-backs, and the technologies used to do so, have made an impressive evolution.

Squeeze-back effects used to be the exclusive high-end capability of standalone DVEs, the history of which reveals much about how we arrived at where we are today while suggesting how the trend might continue in future.

The DVEs came into use in the early 1980s. Just as Thomas Watson, former chairman of IBM, claimed in 1952: “I think there's a world market for about five computers,” the first DVE manufacturer Ampex anticipated selling around 10 DVEs worldwide.

We, of course, know now that the success of DVEs was orders of magnitude greater than the expectation, but their role in the creation of squeeze-backs was something of a strangulated birth. They were expensive to own and run, and so the use of squeeze-backs carried great prestige and was a mark of production quality.

Their application was restricted to post-production, so using squeeze-backs in live broadcasts was rare. The challenge was set for manufacturers to develop a cheaper, smaller and easier-to-use alternative.

Fall of the standalone DVE

The major costs buoying the prestigious standalone DVE market were memory capacity and pixel processing which, for its time, was cutting-edge. Yet as the technology improved and the price dropped, it was no longer cost-effective for manufacturers to offer DVEs as a single product and so began their merge with video switchers during the mid '90s.

Even so, few broadcasters felt prepared to make the significant investment in a new vision mixer purely to create a specific screen effect. Manufacturers took the hint and made something of a seismic shift in the creation of squeeze-backs by lifting them from the exclusive realm of post-production: They integrated DVEs into character generators (CGs).

For the first time, broadcasters' perceptions of squeeze-backs were as a multi-purpose creative technique, optimized by CGs for transmission and live productions. North American broadcasters introduced squeeze-backs as end-credit promotion tools in the late '90s. The UK's Channel 4 was the first to import them across the Atlantic. The BBC introduced live squeeze-backs to its own program promotion in 2000 and was viewed by many as an aggressive move to increase ratings.

Within a relatively short while, DVEs were no longer available as standalone solutions and, where they still exist as legacy systems, they are typically unsupported and unsuited for use as a live tool.

Cost comparison

The shift in squeeze-back creation signaled a shift in both capital outlay and production workflow. Without the ability to produce squeeze-backs live, commercial broadcasters, for example, must edit every break in every program.

Even channels such as movie and documentary specialists with a high repeat cycle still need to vary their promotions for time-accuracy. This means the same program played out every night of the week will still need its end-credit sequence editing to include the appropriate promotion. Every instance of the program will differ, necessitating multiple edits of the same content.

To outsource the task to a post-production house might cost around €150,000 per year, while bringing the task in-house makes only a negligible difference. The major difference in price point results from the integration of DVEs in CGs rather than vision mixers, bringing the cost down to around €70,000.


The added benefit of an automated CG solution is the ability to include over-laid graphics to accompany each side of the screen. In live news, for example, field-footage might carry lower-third graphics such as static interviewee name and location labels or dynamic tickers, charts or logos.

In addition, the CG can create the transition sequence from single screen to squeezed-back dual picture. In the news environment, the second screen might begin as an image above the anchor's shoulder and then expand to occupy half of the main screen as the anchor view moves to one side.

Graphics templates within the CG make it easy for editors, producers and journalists to create the visual they need, even as programs go live.

Technical implications

Automated on-screen effects are only as good as the software that powers them. Without it, music channels credit songs to the wrong artists; others promote the wrong program on the wrong day, and incorrect ticker information plays to air.

As an alternative, those with relatively fixed schedules, such as film and documentary channels, are in an ideal position to benefit from a CG that batch-sorts content for review at regular intervals before transmission.

A further consideration is the format of the content the broadcaster intends to squeeze. The shrinking and re-scaling of the screen can affect the display of captions, text and images and so necessitate technical adjustments to continue to display them correctly.

In turn, broadcasters considering squeeze-backs need to develop both an internal creative standard and a policy on formats for the programs they commission or acquire, particularly those whose end-credit sequences will be squeezed back to share the screen with promotional material. For example, crawling credits or unusually small text typically fails to transfer legibly to the condensed screen. They might, however, use a layout that squeezes horizontally and allows them to run along the lower part of the screen.

At least one major commercial broadcaster in the UK has already developed regulations for content providers on the format of their credit sequences as part of its commissioning and purchasing policy.

The format of squeeze-backs contributes to the look and feel of the channel and so constitutes a major part of the viewer's experience and interaction with the channel as a brand.

Creating squeeze-backs

Essentially, three elements prevail in the decision to implement a squeeze-back-capable CG: quality, features and control.

Quality refers in particular to the performance of the CG's filter in retrieving the appropriate graphics from the clip-and-still store. For example, automation of channel branding and promotions requires the CG to import data from a traffic system and batch-build promotion page sequences based on pre-defined templates. This requires tight searches of traffic data to automatically extract the correct show titles and build multiple line-up bumpers.

The features of a CG must combine the capabilities of a vision mixer, DVE and traditional CG. In the past, this required three separate devices and multiple commands, but now the same effects are achievable using a single command on one device to recall an entire tailored sequence and play it to air.

This issue of control is critical. Automation delivers the maximum efficiencies, so an important consideration is how easy the system is to run day after day under the automated control of a newsroom or general automation configuration.

The future for squeeze

For viewers, squeeze-backs have taken some getting used to. While the early '90s were characterized by complaints about cluttered screens, particularly for promotions, the squeeze-back has now firmly established itself as an important graphical tool for broadcast business.

As audiences become faster with their remote control, the future for the technique is to bring program promotions forward to even before credits roll. And this isn't such a great leap: We're already used to squeeze-backs as an integral part of programs such as news, so audiences are ready.

James Gilbert is the president and CEO US of Pixel Power.