At the beginning of the complicated legal thriller "Damages," a battered and bloody young woman named Ellen Parsons demands a lawyer from a seat in a police interrogation room. In flashbacks, this same brunet is shown fending off an attacker and then stumbling onto a gory scene of a butchered loved one.
Check the bottom of the screen. There you'll find some helpful hints that work like a cross between "Pop-Up Video" and CliffsNotes and signal a new way that networks are starting to give viewers a quick entree into complex shows. "Ellen is being held as a suspect in the murder of her fiancé, David Connor," says the first info bite, which is then followed by, "Ellen hasn't yet told the police she was attacked in Patty's apartment the same day her fiancé was killed."
The on-screen subtitles function as a primer of sorts, appearing every few minutes to flesh out a twisty plot turn or reveal a character's sinister motives. Taking a page from ABC's "Lost," satellite service DirecTV has recently started airing these enhanced versions of "Damages" on its 101 Network and the clues come from a true insider: a writer on the first three seasons of the show.
The approach, coupled with a dedicated website, made sense for a show that can be tough to follow, DirecTV executives said, especially at a time when TV audiences are easily distracted by gadgets and other entertainment.
"It's a way to say to viewers, 'It's not too late to get involved in this show,'" said Paul Guyardo, DirecTV's chief marketing officer. "And it might keep new viewers from throwing in the towel if they can watch episodes that give them extra background and context."
And there may be more transmedia outreach coming, given the fierce competition for viewers and the sky-high cost of TV production. Networks, cable channels and premium services are rolling out eye-catching ways to help their shows break through, such as tickers on the bottom third of the screen and live question-and-answer sessions via Twitter.
AH , AMERICANS AND THEIR ATTENTION SPANS