Why We Are Doomed To Watch Crap

29 04 2008

I love listening to This Week In Media, I really do. I love listening to Alex Lindsay, I love screaming at John Foster to just shut up for a second, I love learning more about media.

But one of the funniest parts of this podcast is listening a group of really educated media creators talk about how they watch media.

A few weeks ago, the group got into a discussion about how their ideal movie theatre wouldn’t allow popcorn chomping, or people getting up and down during the film, or any talking, or anything except movie viewing. While I have to say that there have been times when I’ve yelled at my movie viewing aisle mates to shut up, the TWIM people’s view of moviegoing bears very little resemblance to anything I’ve ever experienced in the real world.

Which got me to thinking about content, presentation and just how good is good enough.

Let me take a little detour here. One of the television shows that has captivated me recently is a homespun cooking show called “Lidia’s Italy” which plays on one of the very local public television stations here in Los Angeles.

The show has about the lowest production values and editing of anything that I’ve ever watched — including cable access. The half hour show is made up of the host, a joyful woman named Lidia Bastianich, who stands behind an immense kitchen counter and prepares Italian food with an occasional visit from an assortment from goofy family members and yes-men employees.

This kitchen material is intercut with footage that was shot in Italy of Lidia and her family visiting vineyards, restaurants, and food making facilities. That material looks like it was shot on the cheap — they’re stretching a week or two of shooting over the course of 26 episodes, often reusing the same shots within the same episode.

The transitions from kitchen to Italy and back are accomplished with flying picture-in-picture effects (often jerkily done) placed over a cheesy design-y background, and accompanied by one of about only five stock music cues.

The kitchen material, likewise, looks like it was edited in a rush. Large blocks of time needed to be lifted (as in any cooking show) and that is accomplished with a cutaway and a (usually) noticeable dialogue cut. The same music cues fade in and out in an attempt to bridge time, but their repetitiveness becomes onerous after a bit. Sometime a cue comes and goes in ten seconds.

In short, from a technical and editorial view, the show is total crap.

Yet I love it. In fact, I’m addicted to it. I watch it, knowing how horrible the production values are. And it doesn’t make a difference. The content is more interesting than the presentation, and that carries the day.

I’ve been saying for years that digital projection, even in its 1K ugly form, would become predominant as soon as 95% of the public couldn’t tell the difference between it and film. My guess is that that has now happened. We’ve already seen the lo-res music on iTunes become acceptable, even though its quality is far worse than that of CDs and LPs (or Amazon’s unBox). We calmly sit through the crappiest of video compression on DVDs because it’s way more convenient than going to a theater, and “it’s pretty close, isn’t it?”

And don’t even get me started on “HD” television!!

I’m not being a perfectionist here. I don’t insist, like Alex Lindsay and the TWIM folks, that we watch our movies in pristine conditions (though I’ll always insist on making them as perfect as possible) with gags on the mouths of the audience. I’m a bit more of a realist.

But the fact is that content will always outweigh quality of presentation. No one is going to watch a local kids’ AYSO soccer game on television, even if it is in HD (unless their kid is playing). But they’ll watch the Super Bowl, even if it’s on their 15″ ancient television (if that’s all they have). In the equation, compelling content beats out compelling presentation — though I’m going to have to get back to you about how 300 fits into that.




5 responses

29 04 2008

“Good enough” is all it takes for mass acceptance. When was the last time you said, “Can you hear me now” on a landline-to-landline call?

29 04 2008

Wow, good point Andrew.

I might also add that we accept a level of bugs and problems from our software that we never tolerated in our refrigerators or hammers. I’ve also seen an increase in misspellings in books and newspapers that is downright alarming.

30 04 2008
Luke Holzmann

Great post, Norman!

I’ve been thinking about this too, and how it applies to watching videos online (I blogged about it myself here).

You are absolutely, entirely correct: Content beats presentation every time, unless the presentation makes it nearly impossible to access the content. Which may be the whole deal with “300”. That is a movie where the content is the uber special effects. Cut those down with bad compression, and the movie is gone.


30 04 2008
Phoenix Woman

It’s like Viva and Jerry’s country music videos. I can’t stand modern country. V&J’s production values are non-existent. Yet they are such a hoot! They’re your aunt and uncle’s funny neighbors with the RV parked in the back that go to Branson three times a year and are the world’s best cribbage players and just everyone and everything.

30 04 2008

Transporter’s another example of a movie like 300, in my opinion.
I don’t care to watch something purely for the special effects.
Nice blog.

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