It never ends up like the magazine photo

I think that there is a truism in cooking that US media producers should keep in mind: It never ends up like the magazine photo. If you have ever done any amount of cooking you’ll know this fact, if not in those words. Even if the sum total of culinary creation you have indulged in extends as far as pressing buttons on a microwave you can not have failed to notice that the contents of the tray you pull out of the microwave has barely a passing resemblance to the “Serving Suggestion” pictured on the box. Attempts at real cooking with fancy ingredients inspired by the glossy pictures that face you down in the grocery store check out line only fare somewhat better, even if the flavor of the result hopefully knocks your socks off. The lesson learned fairly quickly from cooking is essentially that there are two kinds of recipes: The kind of recipe that makes something taste/feel a particular way, and the kind of recipe that makes something look a particular way. Unless it’s a photography magazine, generally the recipe is for how something tastes and that’s usually a good thing.

I think that begins to describe what happened with the BBC’s attempt at making a Top Gear series specifically for US audiences. In this case I think they had one of those recipes, but it appears to be the recipe (formula) from the photography magazine. You know, the one that says to use glue as the milk in cereal so that it looks right. Despite all the stories of kids eating glue in grade school, I never tried it more then once and while watching the episode “Cobra Attack” I was reminded why I never liked the taste of it very much.

There are definitely good things about the show but they seem to be largely mixed in with the bad. Adam Ferrara in particular embodied several of them. For example, his detailed deciphering of a Lamborghini model number was really useful information and was presented in a way that was interesting. On the other hand his interview of the legendary Buzz Aldrin was… not interesting. A full two minutes is given to the conversation between the two and as far as I can tell it was two minutes too long simply because the photography style recipe had been doggedly followed without any apparent understanding about why it works for Jeremy Clarkson. That formula must say that there should be some pleasant chit-chat and then the host eventually asks about the cars the guest has driven, followed by a softball along the lines of, “How did you like the track?” to move things along to the video replay of the celebrities attempt to drive quickly in a slow car.

I think one of the key reasons why it works for Mr Clarkson and not for Mr. Ferrara is that Clarkson at least looks like he is interested in the answers to the questions he is asking. For the first 40 seconds on the interview Adam seems to make an attempt to be genuinely interested in asking about Aldrin’s career and experience and then spends the remaining 1 min 20 seconds seemingly bored by asking rote “How about the blah blah?” from a list, even when Buzz at least tries to make those answers at least passably interesting. I would really be curious to see the rest of the footage from this section. Was there really nothing else more interesting to show the viewers?

In any case, the point of those questions is not to find out the details of what the guest has driven previously in any sort of detail, but instead it is to determine what kind of driver the guest is. Are they used to driving sports cars? Do they regularly drive at all? Are they a lead-foot or are they cautious? It gives information about the character of the guest which can be interesting. This recitation was not.

That kind of slavish copying of the style and rote of the original Top Gear series permeates the entire episode and are the key to the problems with the show. The main feature of this episode, and the source of the title, is a chase between a Dodge Viper and a Huey Cobra helicopter. Wow, I haven’t seen anything like that before. Oh, wait. A highlight of the next episode is a race against downhill skiers. Wait, not this one.

The flavor of the original Top Gear series is not attained by following that photographic formula to the letter. It is done by selecting the ingredients carefully and paying attention to what is happening in your pot while they cook. It doesn’t matter if the recipe says “high heat” if on your stove it starts to burn immediately. You turn the heat down! More apropos of this episode: a “pinch” of salt is a highly subjective measurement and should be adjusted to the taste of the audience.

One thought in fairness though, is that I have only seen episodes of the UK series after it had a chance to mature. I only have access to Season 6 and later easily, and so that is primarily what I have seen. Given enough time it is feasible that this lame copy could find it’s own voice. I suppose I just don’t trust that will happen. In that vein I asked people for good examples of UK media properties that had been remade in the US. The only examples that had come to mind for me had been the highly unfortunate “Coupling” by NBC. On balance there are several good examples including “Antiques Roadshow” (which I had thought was originally from the US), “American Idol”, and “The Office”. Now, I don’t particularly like either incarnation of those last two but that doesn’t make them bad shows in either form and I don’t think it’s fair to simply lump this attempt into something that could just be a popular misconception.

So is the US version of Top Gear a travesty? Heck no. The aforementioned bit explaining Lamborghini model numbers is a good example of when it really works. Similarly the graphic overlay of the guest’s position on the track while watching the lap is a nice touch, though using some transparency effects to make it slightly less prominent would be nice. Those kinds of little touches show that there is something there but unfortunately I think that by following the wrong formula a little too well makes the entirety end up tasting just like the paper those magazine photos are printed on.

Things you should know about HDTV

I’ve been running into a huge number of people who don’t understand what’s going on with HDTV lately, so I figured I needed to put something out for the couple of people who do read my blog.

  1. The HD broadcast switch is a funded federal mandate. (see item #3)
  2. You do not have to get rid of your existing TV unless you really want to. (see item#3)
  3. Every household in the US is entitled to two (2) coupons good for free HD to SD content converters. You can get your coupon from https://www.dtv2009.gov/. These are set top boxes that go from a standard pair of rabbit ears or whatever you’re using as an antenna to your TV and let you watch HD content on your regular old non-HD TV.
  4. You are getting something (two things!) from the government for FREE here people.
  5. If you plan to continue using a VCR or other SD equipment (Tivo series 1 and 2, Windows MCE, MythTV, etc) to record programming make sure that you get a converter box that can change channels on a schedule or can be controlled by your recording equipment. If your recording equipment has built in schedules of some kind they may not match the new HD lineup and schedule.
  6. Shop for a new TV carefully. Just because you buy a new “HD capable” TV does not mean you can just hook up an antenna and start getting HD content. Many “HD Capable” TVs sold do not include an HD tuner (though it’s better than it used to be) since for the most part the manufacturer’s figure that you will have either a cable box or satellite receiver that will do the tuning instead. A TV with an HD tuner will likely cost $100-$200 more than an otherwise identical model.
  7. Not all HD capable TVs are widescreen. Many manufacturers make several “normal” (4:3 aspect ratio) sets that are just as “HD capable” as their widescreen versions.
  8. Not all HD capable TVs are light and thin. I personally own a ~125lb 30in widescreen CRT that I really quite like except when I decide to move it up or down stairs. CRTs still for the most part look better than other competing technologies. The problem is that, as evidenced by my 125lb wonder of modern technology, the technology does not scale well to really big screens.
  9. “Plasma” TVs use much more power than a similarly sized CRT. Really big plasma TVs use proportionally more power. My brother heats his living room with his (Not a joke).
  10. LCD TVs use much less power than a similarly sized CRT. Really big LCD TVs use proportionally more power which may actually be more than your current 27in non-HD TV uses. Do not take the word of the salesman at the store on this one, get a Kill-A-Watt and find out for yourself.
  11. The biggest downside to many of the non-CRT technologies is that they can be very difficult to see anything when you are not directly in front of them (though it is much better than it was a few years ago). Some sets are much better than others. If the comfy chair is off in a corner you may not be able to watch anything on that big new thing heating the living room. Before you go to the store, figure out where you might end up trying to watch it from in your room and figure out what that distance and angle are and try and replicate it in the store to see what it will look like.
  12. A 30in widescreen TV has a picture that is about the same size vertically as a 27in “normal” (4:3) TV. Remember that the measurement is diagonal.
  13. You do not have to have cable or satellite to get local broadcast HD channels. Most satellite receivers get their local HD content from an antenna you hook up to the back of them. Some cable systems don’t display all of the local HD channels.
  14. Most cable systems highly compress their content so it is very possible that NBC/ABC/CBS/FOX/PBS/CW/etc might look better from an antenna in your area.
  15. Not all content from HD sources is really HD. There’s quite a bit of programming (especially children’s and daytime programming) that is still displayed in SD. Re-runs of Cheers and Friends will always be in SD. The HD source might make it look a bit better than the old SD signal though.
  16. Not all stations that are broadcasting in HD are broadcasting HD content at all. Up until Fall of 2007 my local CW affiliate in particular was broadcasting everything in 480P which meant the widescreen dramas (Like Smallville) get shrunk to fit the lower resolution and looked really bad on my widescreen set with black bars on all sides. (Thanks to Aaron for pointing out they had changed over) Still, it is something to watch for in your area, especially on stations that are not affiliated with the big four networks.

That’s all that I can think of right now but if anyone has any questions feel free to ask them. If I don’t know the answer I’m more than willing to look them up.