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Is TV getting so complicated we need CliffsNotes to keep up?

March 16, 2011 |  2:50 pm

Subtitles If you've spent any time with "Damages," a legal thriller so complicated it defies a thumbnail description, you might've wished you had someone feeding you background so you could sort out its frequent flashbacks, double crosses, and ripped-from-the-headlines plots.

And if you haven't seen it yet but might want to jump into its tangled web, you could surely use a primer on its antihero Patty Hewes and her morally suspect minions.

Done and done!

DirecTV has started airing episodes of "Damages" with info bites that appear at the bottom of the screen to give viewers a primer of sorts on the layered drama. The enhanced episodes, on the satellite service's 101 Network, mean to bring the audience up to speed and nurture it along as the twisty storylines of the Emmy-winning series unfold.

ABC pioneered the on-screen tactic -- which works like a cross between "Pop-Up Video" and CliffsNotes -- with "Lost," and now other networks are putting it to use for sophisticated dramas that can be tough to follow.

This may be just the beginning of the trend. Networks, cable channels and premium services are experimenting with on- and off-screen tactics intended to grab viewers and keep them coming back. Given the fierce competition for eyeballs and the sky-high cost of TV production, expect to see everything from tickers on the bottom third of the screen to live question-and-answer sessions via Twitter.

Read more about networks' efforts to pull entertainment fans away from their iPads and back to the TV screen.

-- T.L. Stanley