Thursday, September 25, 2008

Political Ad Bloopers

I love picking on political ads. Because the budgets are small and the talent pool is shallow, the local ads are the most hilarious, but that's shooting fish in a barrel. Even Sara Palin has to admit that ain't sporting. No, I prefer to go after the state-wide or national campaigns that have supposedly bigger budgets and supposedly better ad agencies producing their spots.

Sure, I can point out the political details that are often glossed over or ignored by the copywriters in order to stoke an emotional response. Like the McCain ads that lean on the tried and true Republican tactic of proclaiming that Obama and his Liberal friends in congress want to raise your taxes, thus planting the seed in the dittohead brain that somehow taxes won't go up under McCain. Pretty ironic stuff coming from the party whose president is about to engineer the biggest economic bailout since FDR.

But I'd rather leave that sort of thing to the political pundits. My specialty is spotting the technical and production gaffs that can pop up in a hastily produced political ad. It may come as surprise to realize that ever since Ike appeared in the first TV spots for president, the same film techniques that sell you soap and aspirin have been employed to influence your vote. Some Eisenhower commercials were produced by Walt Disney studios, using the same talent pool of animators and technicians that brought you "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty." From the very beginning, the bar was set high. As a result, it never occurs to the average viewer that a photo of a rumpled woman with a look of concern on her face only represents a haggard working mother, but in reality she is a paid professional model. Or that it took 15 takes before your senator could master the finer points of jumping off that John Deere tractor and shaking the hand of a dusty farmer (civic theater thespian) in letterboxed slow-mo. These people are in the image making business, and reality is a lose concept lost somewhere between the Bridge to Nowhere and a swiftboat.

Currently, my favorites are the ads for Ohio's Issue 6. Now I'm not necessarily against opening a casino in Clinton County. In fact, Wilmington could use the jobs. But the "Vote Yes" spots contain a number of distractions that make me wonder just how much care and research really went into this campaign.

The most recent ad I just ingested into our station's spot server is an answer to a negative ad by the opposition. At one point we see a car crossing the boarder into Ohio, meant to represent the image of an Ohio resident staying in Ohio to spend his gambling dollars in his home state. Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that if an Ohio resident is staying in Ohio he doesn't need to reenter a state he never left, this image would be a whole lot more convincing if the car shown driving into Ohio had an Ohio license plate.

The first ad in the campaign is even more fun. Here we are shown cars, trucks, and buses driving across the various state lines representing "Ohio dollars leaving the state at 65 miles per hour." It would be a great visual if those damn details brought on by a short production deadline and a limited budget didn't get in the way. "We're surrounded by states that allow casino gambling," states the voice over. Make that nearly surrounded. Kentucky does not have casinos, but you're more than welcome to drive down to Turfway or Churchill Downs and watch your money gallop around the track, so that's a wash. What I can't get past is how the same tour bus shown crossing into Michigan is then shown crossing into West Virginia. Neat trick.

And I'm still trying to figure out how those trucks and buses are entering West Virginia rolling right past the state line sign without crossing the Ohio River.

Maybe what they need is a bridge to nowhere.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

End of the Line

Last stop. Everybody off. The Soul Train has made its final boogy across America.

A victim of changing musical tastes - if you can call the current self destruction of Hip Hop a musical taste - Soul Train ceased production at the end of the 2005-6 season. Since then, stations have been sent "The Best of Soul Train" episodes, which were actually quite fun to watch. The fashions and the music of the '70's and '80's made for some great viewing. Unfortunately, nobody ever made it a priority to promote these shows, and the dead zone time slots the show usually ran in didn't help. Advertisers bailed. Hats off to McDonald's and Proctor and Gamble for sticking with it to the end. Gone were the Afro-Sheen commercials, half the fun of watching "Train" for us middle class white kids in the the burbs.

And that was the beautiful thing about Soul Train. It was accessible. Sure, it was aimed at African Americans, or an "Urban" audience as Black programming was called back in 1970 when Soul Train began on WCIU in Chicago. When the show went into national syndication it broke ground as the first successful national program aimed unabashedly at a black audience. Nat "King" Cole had a network show in the 1950's, but some affiliates in the South refused to air it, and let's face it, Cole's appeal crossed race barriers. Bill Cosby on "I Spy" and Lt. Uhura on "Star Trek" were aimed at all audiences. But from the moment that animated train chugged across the screen and you heard Don Cornelius' voice, you knew this show was Black with a capital "B." And no matter who you were, you just had to watch.

And the music kept you watching. In the early days, performers sang on the show live - most notably Mimi Rippeton, who could prove without a doubt those outta sight high notes were hers. (You know Maria Carey was watching.) I remember The Daz Band performing on The Train, and there was no way to lip sync that. As the years progressed, the bands took a back seat to the disco singers miming to their own records being played on a turntable in the control room. (In master control you can hear the record's surface noise and the "wow" pitch distortion caused by a slightly out-of-center spindle hole.) But in those pre-MTV days, who cared? Black kids watched with pride, seeing their musical heros on a show they could call their own. White kids watched with curiosity and the thrill of taking in a part of something a little forbidden. This is a Black show. My parents will raise the roof if they catch me watching this. Cool.

The rise of cable channels MTV and BET surely took a bite out of Train's audience. After all, Michael Jackson was limited in what he could do in that cramped Los Angeles TV studio compared to the Thriller video. But the Train chugged on through the '80's and 90's. Don Cornelius and his crew insisted on a positive show, eschewing gansta rap and lewd Hip Hop in favor of clean rappers and true soul artists. And sadly, that may be the main reason for the show's demise. Advertisers want the kids to watch, and the kids are watching uncensored rap videos on the Internet.

Also, Don Cornelius isn't a young man anymore, and he's finding it hard to pass the torch. A number of hosts have stepped in to fill his shoes since 1993, but it wasn't the same. It's a sad statement when nobody is able to take the torch from a legend like Cornelius. And the television business hasn't helped. The future of Soul Train was truncated with the announced closing of Tribune Entertainment's syndication division in December of 2007, which left Don Cornelius Productions to seek a new distributor for the program. Cornelius singed a deal with Trifecta Entertainment & Media, who, alas, as it happens with so many other minority programs, dropped the ball and left what stations that were still running Soul Train stranded without a show. Our station didn't get the word until after our operators tried to record the next scheduled satellite feed... and it wasn't there. A sad coda to a great show.

But the times have changed. These days the music is about a series of rappers marking their territories like so many stray dogs whizzing on telephone poles. It's defenders say the music tells it like it is; this is life on the block. Yeah, well, maybe I'm just a geezer, but Marvin Gaye told it like it was, and still is, without excluding anybody. And anybody who thinks social inequities are an excuse for rude and immoral behavior ought to take a listen to The Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself."

I'll just keep an eye out for DVD's of classic Soul Train. Until then, I wish you...

Peace, Love, and Soul.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Sound Judgement

Several people have been complaining about the quality of the audio in certain DVD releases. The gripes come from people as diverse as the animation director John Kricfalusi in his blog, to my coworkers at the TV station who raise a good point when they ask why "Law & Order" is transmitted in 5.1 Surround. What? Unless the corpses on the coroner's table come back to life as zombies and start taking over New York City, I doubt there's going to be much in the way of Surround "Ooo!" and "Ah!" moments in L&O. Kinda like shooting "Meet the Press" in HD. Unless Tom Brokaw pulls out a light saber and starts dueling with Yoda I don't think HD is going to help.

Anyway, back to the DVD's. Seems some folks are disappointed in the audio quality of certain releases, such as The Three Stooges, Looney Tunes Vols. 1-5, and numerous old Hollywood classics. Even episodes of "Columbo" seem a little flat. Dialogue is hard to hear. The score is way back there. That car explosion damn near took my head off. What gives, you ask? You thought "Digital Remastered" would be better? Well, it ain't necessarily so.

The reason for all of this gets into the arcane area of audio processing sometimes refereed to as Psychoacoustics. No, it's not the name of Alfred Hitchcock's favorite string quartet. It's the study of how we perceive sound. The key word being perceive. It's not about how our ears work, but rather how we hear. You see that pair of priceless microphones perched on your head are connected to nature's perfect preamp, your brain. And your brain has as much to do with - in fact, more to do with how you hear things than your eardrums or Eustachian tube.

Film Sound vs. TV Sound

Our parents watched Larry, Curly, and Moe poke and slap on the big screen in movie theatres via 35 millimeter film, the way the producers intended them to be shown. Along with the big picture, there was the big sound. A full-fidelity soundtrack reproduced the audio content of the movie by way of the theater's speaker system. These sound systems used big amplifiers to drive big speakers with a level of quality that was pretty much unknown even in the record industry. By the 1950's, after the introduction of magnetic tape, the range of soft to loud sounds capable of being reproduced in a film was quite wide. This is what engineers call Dynamic Range, and as the technology improved, sound engineers put this range to use. Dialog was kept down, while extreme noises were brought up to ear-splitting levels. Thus, in theatrical release Road Runner cartoons from about 1955 on, the music remained at about 60%, while the Acme Rocket Car hit the speakers at 90% or more. And the kids loved it.


Most of us living today have only seen The Three Stooges or Bugs Bunny via a very imperfect contraption we in the biz call the consumer grade television receiver. Gone are the days of the Saturday matinee. Baby Boomers, and we Tweeners, grew up watching these little gems through the static and the fuzz as they were transmitted by our local television stations via grainy, faded, splice-riddled reels of 16mm film. This arrangement was filled with compromise, and television engineers knew the limitations. So, certain adjustments were made.

First, consider that the TV broadcaster is restricted by the FCC (or the equivalent government agency in Canada) as to how loud they can broadcast the audio. If Wile E. Coyote's dynamite is too loud, there's going to be hell, and a hefty fine, to pay. But that bomb is going to go off far too quickly for any master control engineer to catch it in time. Second, consider that many of us, including John K, watch television with fairly simple equipment. Thirty foot CinemaScope curved screens became relics to be replaced with the 13-inch Trinitron with a 3-inch mono speaker. No Voice of Theater speaker cabinets in the living room. Believe me, I've tried. The wife put her foot down.

Furthermore, with a few exceptions, advertisers want their commercials to be LOUD. (No. The commercials are not really louder on the air than the show - but they are fed from the network much louder than the show, and that causes the local station's compression to "pump." More on that in a later post.) So, TV stations are under pressure to be LOUD, whether it helps the programs or not. Trust me, the studio audience on "Oprah" doesn't get any more musical when it's pumped up with 30 decibels of gain.

So, electronic solutions are employed. Audio compression - not to be confused with file compression used in the digital world - is inserted into the audio chain to manage the sudden bursts of frenzy, and make everything more or less the same volume level.

As a result, generations of TV viewers have been watching Warner Brothers' cartoons, the Three Stooges, and "The Wizard of Oz" on analog television with the audio compressed, or "optimized," or "squeezed to death," or "turned into AM radio," or whatever phrase you want to use.

Wide, Wide World

Along comes home video. Early VHS tapes weren't much better than broadcast television - in fact, they're worse. But DVD is a format that exceeds the limitations of analog NTSC North American telecasting. And the engineers who master DVD's want the people who've shelled out for home theater systems to get the most bang - and boom, and crash - for their buck. If you hook up your Blue Ray to a Surround system and sit down to watch "Star Wars" in your home theater, the Death Star blowing up better be the loudest thing in the show, by golly. Obi Wan talking to Luke about the Force is supposed to be soft - just like it was in the theater.

And that's the crux of the whole matter. DVD engineers are trying to recreate the movie theater experience. When they master the audio track, they follow the guidelines of the original production notes whenever possible. New films shot these days really aren't "films" anyway, they're shot in an HD video format at 24 frames per second, again to recreate the film experience. Since the "film" is mastered in an HD format anyway, the content is simply downconverted to the NTSC format for DVD release, with the original audio integrity retained - all 100 decibels of it. In the case of old school content shot on film, the engineers don't "ride the gain," but rather expand the dynamic range even more for an even bigger impression on the home theater viewer.

In other words, new "digitally remastered" or "restored" DVD releases are not put out there for the casual TV viewer still getting by with an RCA Colortrack console. You're supposed to run out and buy a plasma and hook up seven speakers to the thing and let Batman blow the freakin' roof off the place. I'm not exactly sure what artistic merits there are to expanding the audio on any of the Three Stooges repertoire. Fortunately, some newer TV's, like my big screen Trinitron, offer an automatic volume control intended to compensate for the wild variations in audio levels from one cable channel to another. The auto volume does a great job of throttling the audio of "over mastered" DVD's, so I never miss an eye gouge or a face slap or a "Nyak, nyak, nyak." Ah. Now that's technology making life better.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Everyone Knows It's Windy

WERT-AM in Van Wert, Ohio was a victim of Sunday's high winds.

And that's a short tower, not high enough to require lighting. Those of you who know these things might notice the FM bays in the wreckage. Those were not active, just a leftover from the days when WERT-FM was "Stereo 99" at 98.9. Yep. Before The Bear, this was it.

Nobody was hurt. And yes, that's a cornfield in the background. Ha, ha.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Goodbye to "That Movie Voice" Guy

Don LaFontaine, the voiceover king has died, according to media reports. He was 68.

You can hear him parody himself on the AEP "call before you dig" spots currently running, and the trailer for "Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie" found on certain DVD's is the perfect send up. He appeared on "Last Call with Carson Daly" just a few months ago.

Don is in that rare class of voice actor who became famous solely by performing in his chosen profession. Others in than class include Mel Blanc, June Foray, Stan Freeberg, Don Pardo, and, at least among fellow VO artists, Ernie Anderson. (With all due respect, Orson Wells is more famous today as a movie actor. Still, he was great.)

So, who gets to VO the trailer for "King Kong II?"