ƒ Curious Travelers Television: August 2005

Friday, August 26, 2005

Review: Take Five Europe on Discovery Travel Channel Breaks New Ground!

Take Five Europe was the first program I believe that was greenlighted by the new General Manager of the Discovery Travel Channel. It is an extremely smart production decision. The series breaks new ground in integrating written and video blogs with an on air program, building an interactive audience and using small DV and Hi-Def cameras. It also is shot and edited in one week, so certainly current events such as the London subway bombings appear in the show, giving it an up to date feel, something lacking in travel programs, that often air a year after they are shot and have outdated information, for example, on prices for accommodations, vital info for the traveler.

It's partially produced by Michael Rosenblum Associates, a producer I met about two years ago at his film school DV Dojo. The idea of the film school was to teach journalist and indie filmmakers how to become what he called VJ, or video journalists. With the introduction of inexpensive DV broadcasts quality camera by Sony, JVC,Panasonic and Canon and editing systems such as Final Cut Pro by Apple the barrier to entry to produce a television show has been lowered.

Before you had to buy or rent a camera that cost between $25,000 and $100,000 and edit it on Avids, that cost another $100,000 plus. Now you could produce a television program of equal quality with a $3,000 camera and a $3,000 computer with editing software.

The DV Dojo promoted the idea that television was now not three or five main networks but hundreds of channels, with a hunger for content. All you had to do to feed the machine was produce content to earn a living as a VJ.

Of course it's not as simple at that. The networks have plenty of suppliers they can depend on and relationships going back years, so they aren't actively seeking out new sources of programming. That said, some new companies do get a chance from time to time, particularly if they make a decent program for acquisition.

The DV Dojo courses were expensive. One could buy a computer and and editing program for the cost of a single week course in Final Cut Pro. Let's fact it: it's not hard to learn the basics of these programs. It's not rocket science although granted to get really good at video editing it's like anything else. It requires experience and certain talents, particularly if you are working on deadline.

After a year the DV Dojo put up the out of business sign. Michael Rosenblum went back to his bread and butter, producing for cable television networks. He also consulted companies such as Oxygen, the BBC, NY1 and the New York Times Television, looking to cut costs by switching over to the lower cost video formats, such as DV and HDV.

Michael hooked up with another company M3 Media and developed Take Five Europe. On the website he's not featured in any of the video blogs with the behind the scenes footage, for reasons I don't know?

Take Five Europe takes advantage of the new video technologies. The series features five VJ, now called TJ's (Travel Journalist) Travelers. Each is given fifty dollars a day to travel on, and that includes hotel and food, not much in Europe these days. They travel to six cities in Europe: Paris, Prague, Barcelona , Venice, Berlin and Athens. They also have DV cameras - Panasonic AG-DVX100A, Apple Powerbooks loaded with Final Cut Pro and are required to shoot and edit a one hour episode in a week while on the road. It's a clever gimmick and the shows are broadcast a week after they are completed, so you are seeing each program almost in real time. Usually a program takes at least a month to complete from start to finish, and as long as three months.

The five VJ's are followed around by a team of eleven with the new prosumer Hi-Def cameras, the Sony HVRZIU (the Z camera). All the HI-Def footage is unfortunately downconverted to match the DV and the program is broadcast in standard definition and 4:3 aspect ratio. I can't really tell the difference between the Hi-Def footage and the DV and it looks like any other program on Discovery, and that includes footage in the approved cameras - BetaSp and DigiBeta!

Why would anyone shot with anything else the HDV these days? Why lug around a twenty five pound betacam? In a travel program it's best to seem like a tourist and draw as little attention to yourself as possible. I'm seriously considering shooting my travel series with the really small Hi-Def Camera, HDR-HC1 with a CMOS imaging chip. Tests on this camera conclude that it has even better color rendition under normal outdoor shooting situations than the HVRZIU. Under low light conditions it's slightly inferior, but very slightly. Size wise it's a third of the size and weight of the HVRZIU, an important consideration in travel programming. And the cost? It's about the third of the cost as well.

The best part of the series are the video blogs. There is footage in the blogs that was deleted such as the ghost sequence that I would have included in the series. Some of the behind the scenes footage is, as is usually the case, more interesting than the series itself. And each episode is better than the next. The crew and cast seem to be hitting their stride.

The concept of the series is first rate from a technical point of view and a breakthrough for the Travel Channel. Little do they realize they are opening the floodgate for hundreds of submissions, just as Sundance did when it accepted DV films. I think their programming will be better as a result. Certainly the diversity of producers could be positive.

As for content the show in my humble opinion is not on a level with the really top travel programs, such as "No reservations" or the Ian Wright Globe Trekker programs. The problem comes down to the casting, it seems rushed. The producers probably got the go ahead to do the show in June for a late July debut. I saw a casting notice on Craig's list around that time. The travel journalists are not that interesting. They're the average American twenty something, that describe destinations as being "cool'. "hip" "beautiful' and so on. Sometimes they come off in their travels as the classic innocent Americans abroad. Some may consider that part of the shows charm. I prefer intelligent commentary in travel programming but it takes clever writers for that.

Demographically this program is really more for the 18-22 MTV audience than the Travel Channel, with its 25-50 audience. If the "Let's Go" guidebooks had a travel show this would be it, with the kids staying at youth hostels and eating in cheap restaurants. Perhaps the Travel Channel is trying to skew a bit younger audience and get away from it's middle age male presenter programs. I wonder how the rating are? After all the show is not inexpensive to produce. It's not as it could be - just five kids with cameras on the road. The entire crew and cast come to sixteen people, with five cameras, twelve laptops editing over 60 hours of programming.

Still the show must be doing reasonably well in the ratings, as the website announced six new episodes and is soliciting new TJ's online. I hope they do better with the casting next time. The show is a fun idea and as I said before, a break through in technology.

The good news is that it's a possible opening for new producers and new programming ideas.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Lowell Thomas, The Man Who Invented The Travel Program

If we trace the history of the modern travel program the origns go directly to Lowell Thomas, the man who invented the term travelogue. Below is his biography from the wikipedia encyclopedia:

He was born in Woodington, Ohio, in Darke County, the son of Harry and Harriet (Wagner) Thomas. His father was a doctor and his mother a school teacher. In 1900, the family moved to the mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado. There he worked as a gold miner, a cook, and a reporter on the newspaper.

In 1911, he graduated from Valparaiso University with bachelor's degrees in education and science. The next year he received both a B.A. and an M.A. from the University of Denver and began work for the Chicago Journal, writing for it until 1914. While in Chicago, he was a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, teaching oratory. He then went to New Jersey, where he studied for a master's at Princeton University (he received the degree in 1916) and again taught oratory at the university.
A relentless self-promoter, he persuaded railroads to give him free passage on their roads in exchange for articles extolling rail travel. When he visited Alaska he hit upon the novel idea of the travelogue--movies about far-away places. When the United States entered World War I, he was part of an official party sent by President Wilson--the former president of Princeton--to compile a history of the conflict.

Soon after arriving, he went to Palestine to cover General Allenby's campaign against the Ottoman Empire. In Jerusalem, Thomas met T. E. Lawrence, a colonel in the British Army, who was spending £200,000 a month encouraging the inhabitants of Palestine to revolt against the Turks. Thomas shot dramatic footage of Lawrence and toured the world narrating his film, With Alleby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia making Lawrence--and himself--household names. He would later write a book, With Lawrence in Arabia (1924), about these events. He was fictionalized in David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia as American journalist Jackson Bentley, played by Arthur Kennedy. It would be the first of fifty-six volumes. During the 1920s, he was a magazine editor.

In 1930, he became a broadcaster with the CBS radio network. After two years, he switched to the NBC radio network but returned to CBS in 1947. He hosted the evening news for four decades until his retirement in 1976, the longest radio career of anyone. "No other journalist or world figure, with the possible exception of Winston Churchill, has remained in the public spotlight for so long," wrote Norman R. Bowen in Lowell Thomas: The Stranger Everyone Knows (1968). His signature sign-on was "Good evening, everybody" and his sign-off "So long, until tomorrow," phrases he would use in titling his two volumes of memoirs.

Thomas never lost his fascination with the movies. He narrated Twentieth Century Fox's Movietone newsreels until 1952. That year he went into business with Mike Todd and Louis B. Mayer to exploit Cinerama, a movie format that used three projectors and an enormous curved screen. Because of both the cost and technical issues in synchronizing the projectors, Cinerama never caught on, but a quarter-century later, Thomas was still raving about it in his memoirs and wondering why someone wasn't trying to revive it.

"The world's foremost globetrotter" took his radio show on his travels, broadcasting from the four corners of the globe. Once on the Spanish Steps in Rome he was asked by a fellow American, "Lowell Thomas, don't you ever go home?" He was a fanatical skiier, helping develop the Mont Tremblant resort in Quebec and skiing near Tucson, Arizona.
He was a successful businessman, helping to found Capital Cities Communications, which in 1986 took over the American Broadcasting Company, and developed the Quaker Hill community in Dutchess County, New York, near Pawling, where Thomas resided when not on the road. Among his neighbors there was Thomas E. Dewey, one of a huge circle of friends that included everyone from the Dalai Lama to Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1976, President Gerald Ford awarded Thomas the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1989.

Thomas died at his home at Pawling at the age of eighty-nine.

His only child, Lowell Thomas, Jr., was lieutenant governor of Alaska in the 1970s.

Rick Steves' Backdoor to Europe - The Economics of a Travel Series

Rick Steves has to hold the record of creating the most economical travel shows. For his thirteen episode half hour series:

His crew is a total of three people:
- Rick Steves - The presenter
- A cameraman - usually a local, so he doesn't have to pay for flying in and housing him.
- A director

Probably if he wanted to he could do away with the cameraman and have a crew of just two people. I personally like to work with a team of at least six - director, producer, soundman, cameraman, presenter and local fixer. I think it's a more enjoyable way to work and you can make a better program.

He doesn't even have a soundman, which is the reason most of his programs are voice over narration. He writes the script as a treatment, only about ten pages for a thirty minute program, then looks for locations to shoot and has a few on camera segments, with the camera on a tripod and a lavalier wireless microphone.

The Total Budget for thirteen episodes:
$500,000 for thirteen half hour segments, so each episode costs a total of $38,461.53 per episode.

Each episode takes one six days to shoot and he shoots an hour of video a day on average.

Most of the expense is in the post production. It's edited and all the post production is done by the staff at Oregon Public Broadcasting, the presenting station, who are paid well for their services. Rick Steves provides a steady source of income to the station.

Public broadcasting pays for half of the shows costs, through a production loan which goes to paying for the post production. Rick Steves pays for the other half out of his pocket and the crew members, including Rick Steves, work for a small salary and a deferred salary.

After the programs air on Public Broadcasting for free in a type of syndication used by American Public Television called exchange, they are sold sparingly to other cable television outlets domestically and internationally -even more sparingly - for very little money but enough to cover all the production expense and also make a modest profit.

The program also receives an income from the DVD's they sell at the end of the program through a web site address and 800 number. Each eight hour DVD sells for $19.95 and cost about $2 each to manufacture.

Once the network's loan is paid off Rick Steves pays off the deferments to himself and the crew, then the profits are split three ways equally among the production company Backdoor Productions, the PBS network and Oregon Public Television, the presenting station.

In addition the program has an underwriter, an advertiser that pays a small fee for a 15 second "announcement" at the beginning and end of each program. In the case of Backdoor to Europe, the underwriter is American Airlines. Underwriting is fairly difficult to get for a new program, as the underwriter is understandably interested in a track record for the program that proves their are a certain number of viewers. In addition underwriters tend to stay clear of travel programs or any programs for that matter that are anyway controversial. Rick Steves shows are certainly not that. In fact they are fairly bland family fare programs, so he can get underwriting while more edgy programs such as Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations', with its countless references to his genitalia probably can't, not a problems when the advertising income is acquired from Discovery's vast ad-sales department.


Rick Steves programs are fairly popular on PBS, ranking sometimes in the top five programs viewed, so underwriting is no problem and the revenues for it guarantee in advance of cable and DVD sales a certain amount of profit.

So that's it in a nutshell, how this business works, or at least how Rick Steves series is produced. Of course the economics for a far more expensive program such as Globe Trekker is different, as are the programs on the Discovery Travel Channel and the Fine Living Network, which are mostly work for hire commissions

Keep in mind that Rick Steves main business is not producing travel programs. The programs are really infocommercials for his other business, a twenty million dollar a year tour business and guidebooks. If the budget is the lowest in the industry it's for good reason. He knows the income the program can generate and has adjusted his budget accordingly.

Why All Travel Shows Should Shoot in Hi-Definition?

In five years digital TV will be the standard worldwide. Already it is the standard in Japan.

In the united States the FCC mandate requires all television manufacturers to equip their products, except those smaller than 13 inches, with digital television (DTV) tuners by 2007. Digital tuners allow TVs to receive digital broadcasts from over-the-air signals, that is, when not hooked up to cable or satellite. The FCC claims that implementing its rule is necessary for all TV sets to be digitally compatible, thereby facilitating the transition from analog to digital signals and allowing consumers to watch TV in digital mode.

That means that all programs currently produced in standard definition analog format will have a limited shelf life, possibly less than five years, maybe as little as two years. This is bad news for travel television producers such as Globe Trekker, who has over one hundred hours of travel programmer in their inventory. The value of this huge library may be seriously diminished.

This is good news for all travel program producers who now produce in HI-Definition today, as their programs will have evergreen status.

Up until last year there was only one way to produce in Hi- Definition, the expense way with uncompressed hi-definition and using camera such as the $100,000 Sony HD-Cam.

Now several inexpensive HDV cameras are on the market, from Sony and JVC and soon from Panasonic and the going has been rocky up until now with their acceptance by networks such as the Discovery Travel Channel although that seems about to change.

When the first camera came to market the JY-HD10U. a one CCD chip with the progressive 720/30P (MPEG2) standard the engineers of the network forbid it's use, claiming that this highly compressed Hi Definition was not of sufficient quality to
go up on the satellite and would produce artifacts, the word for tiny markings on the screen caused by missing pixels.

When Sony came out with HVRZIU 3CCD 1080i camera and now the amazingly compact HDR-HC1 with a CMOS imaging chip, the engineers also complained about artifacts and banned any footage from this camera as a deliverable.

Of course I suspect that many producers use these HDV camera at times and convert (upconverted?) to Sony HD-Cam, the required deliverable, just as in the past they shot in DV and DVCAM and transferred to Digibeta format as the required deliveable. Can the engineer's spot the difference? Maybe? Do the programmers take this in consideration? Probably only if the content and technical quality are not up to standard ie poor focus, exposures, color correction, etc.

Is there a reason for the networks reluctance to accept HDV camera originated footage? Is it possible this is about raising the barrier to entry, as it use to be with the AVID for editing before FCP became widespread?

The barrier to entry has just gotten considerably lower with all these inexpensive broadcast quality cameras.
Are the networks afraid of being flooded with thousands of "amateur" filmmakers and having to deal with all this rather than relying on it's exclusive cadre of well funded and well equipped albeit often with legacy equipment, producers?

It's really difficult to know and this prejudice against HDV may be changing. One of the first programs that Pat Younger greenlighted when he took his position in the Travel Channel was "Five Takes Europe", shoot with the HVRZIU and the Panasonic AG-DVX100A, a mini DV 24p camera. The footage was all converted to a common DV standard and the program broadcast in standard definition and the standard 4:3 aspect ratio.

Anthony Bourdain's "No reservations" was also shoot with the Panasonic AG-DVX100A.

Both look great, no artifacts that I can see.

Is DV and HDV now an acceptable format for the Discovery Travel Channel?

It seems that it is, and that the producers have won out over the engineers or who ever is behind the prohibition of new video formats such as DV and HDV

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Globe Trekker - The Format, Fixed In Time

Globe Trekker is one of the best travel program out there.

It's the only truly international travel program. It's got some of the best presenters, music and they spend their budget wisely; they haven't yielded to some of the cost cutting measures in other travel programs these days, where they shoot for just one week and the program, while hosted, is practically all voice over such as Rick Steves' Backdoor Productions. They spend time in the pre-production, production and post and always come up with a first class product, although some of their presenters are weak and the programs suffer as a result.

And it has the format down. In fact the format hasn't changed from the first episode with Ian Wright in Rio. Each episode begins with an impressive animated logo.

Then a tight close-up of the presenter, who says something about the destination, followed by a pull back to reveal the location.

Then a montage of the location with scenes from the program with the theme music in the background.

Cut to: Title of the production, followed by a map with some information about the geography of the city or country (countries) covered in the episode.

Then the presenter enters the location, usually arriving at a bus stop, train station or walking down the street to his/her hotel. There is a scene at the front desk, usually with some humor if the presenter is trying to speak a foreigner language, then a scene in the hotel room.

After that each episode covers the following items, as if in a guidebook:
1. Visits to tourist sites - churches, museums, battlefields, etc
2. Something about the transportation, often done with amusing scenes.
3. Always a scene(s) involving food/eating, often with the presenter dining on survivor type foods, such as bugs or unpleasant part of an animal.
4. Some shopping, usually in a bazaar or flea market
5. If it is a country, some traveling by bus, van, train with road shots
6. Participation in a physical activety, such as playing basketball, soccer, wrestling
7. Always at least one popular festival.
8. If appropriate, some scene on night life in the destination.
9. Sometimes it ends with climbing a mountain and reaching the top.
10. A visit to something "off the beaten track" such as the slums in Brazil or New York or to a local tribe.
11. Several interviews with tourists and sometimes an expat.
12. Some history of the destination, usually no more than a minute
13. Final conclusion about the presenter thinks about the destination, as the theme music returns

This format is based on guidebooks, in particular the original alternative travel Lonely Planet, as opposed to travel writing, as the new Discovery Travel Channel programs, such as Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations" and Cash Peters "Stranded". It has a certain dated quality and certain limitations, as it must cover all the sections in a guidebook: history, tourist/historic sites, accommodations, food, transportation. The voice over narration often seems to be right out of a guidebook.

Individual presenters bring something different to each program. Ian Wright creates comic scenes and situations and goes into physical comedy with pratfalls, Justine Shapiro brings a certain smug attitude to the show and Megan McCormick excudes a quirky personal charm. When they interview people or deliver their own observations the shows come to life. When they have to read the guidebook narration, often in the post production, the show falls flat.

Visually the show settled on a definite style from the first program, a mixture of Super 8 shaky home movie footage and high quality betacam footage. This gives the programs a definite look, while also probably allowing the filmmakers to capture some scenes with a very low profile.

The music in the programs are all original for each episodes, often including scores with instruments and melodies unique to the locals.

Globe Trekker found it's niche in the travel programming universe early on and has kept to its very strict format, visual and aural style. Hey if it works why change it?

The History of Globe Trekker: Mother of all Modern Travel Programs

The History of Globe Trekker/Pilot Guides, according to Curious Travelers (and correct me if I am wrong, some information is insider info, most is second hand and from research)

If the grandfather of all travel programs was Lowell Thomas, the honor of the father of the modern travel program, called travelogues at the time ( a word Mr. Thomas coined), the mother of the modern travel program is Pilot Guides, started in 1994 by Ian Cross. The first program on Rio de Janeiro was presented by a then twenty late something Ian Wright. The series was called The Lonely Planet and based on the popular guidebooks.

With over one hundred episodes, Pilot Guide is now the most popular travel program on American television and in the world. It is reported to have over 30 million viewers and is available in over forty countries, mostly through it's distribution by Discovery International, It is particularly popular in Asia, where Ian Wright has achieved celebrity status and recognized on the street. Ironically in London he is a relatively unknown, often confused with a famous soccer player of the same name.

Based in two adjoining townhouses in London, with a sales office in Los Angeles, Pilot Guides is put together with a team of only twelve and produces three series: the longest running travel program on television Globe Trekker (as it is know in the US) on PBS/WETA , Adventures in Golf hosted by the founder himself Ian Cross and Food Planet. They also produce a series of short extras on shopping, food, festivals to round out their forty five to fifty minute programs. Many of the shorts are recycled footage, re-edited footage of existing programs and some is new footage with new presenters, possibly under consideration for presenters in the longer series.

It started out as "Lonely Planet" and was to my knowledge the first travel series produced in association with a guidebook company, the second guidebook based program being Roughguides, which aired for eight years back in the 90's. The original production were partly or wholly financed under a licensing agreement with Channel 4 in England. I don't know the details of the agreement with Lonely Planet but several years ago they managed to retain all the rights to the programs and rebrand them as Globe Trekker/Pilot Guides.

My guess is that Lonely Planet didn't realize how popular the programs would be. Much of it's incredible success is due to the impressive hosting in particular by Ian Wright, Megan McCormick and Justine Shapiro, the programs most popular of its eleven presenters. As a branding and marketing tool for Lonely Planet Guidebooks the program was a Godsend. The loss of the programs must have been a blow to its marketing efforts. Since then Lonely Planet Guidebooks has formed a division Lonely Planet TV and produced several episodes of a travel program Six Degrees but it has yet to make it into the American television market and its popularity pales in comparison with Pilot Guides, which has a monster following.

Another theory regarding Lonely Planet's loss of the series involves a conflict between the content of the series and the guidebook's brand evolution. Originally Lonely Planet was a guidebook that was read by alternative travelers, mostly young, say 22-25, on a budget, seeking out of the way destinations "The Road Less Traveled", staying at youth hostels and campgrounds, eating at roadside restaurants, etc. Lonely Planet began in the early 1970's after founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler completed an overland journey from London through Asia and on to Australia. That trip resulted in the first ever Lonely Planet guidebook - Across Asia on the Cheap - and laid the foundations of the world's leading independent travel publisher.

With a more educated youthful population, the generation of the 1960's, a rise in disposable income , and most importantly, the introduction of the wide body aircraft and cheap flights such as the long defunct Laker Airlines, The Lonely Planet catered to this new type of traveler. (Actually "Let's Go", started by a group of students at Harvard University, in 1960 was the first guidebook to cater to this new travel market but it wasn't until the 1990's, when it was distributed by St. Martin's Press that the guidebook had a considerable readership.) In the beginning The Lonely Planet also benefited for the invention and widespread use of the Xerox machine, which allowed individuals to create inexpensive, albeit a limited number, of copies of their publications and test the market. It was as if they had control of the means of production - access to the printing press.

Lonely Planet however faced competition from other guidebooks in the 1980's such as Rough Guides, started in 1982 by Mark Ellingham out of England, a student scheme like Let's Go, that became a publishing phenomenon. More traditional and general guidebooks such as Frommer's (started in the early 1950's) and Fodor's (started in 1936) included information for budget travelers and eventually devoted entire editions catering to this market of alternative travelers.

As a reaction to the clutter in the marketplace of alternative travel guidebooks several years ago the Lonely Planet included information for more upscale travelers as well as the budget travelers. Now there are listings in Lonely Planet for five star hotels and restaurants along with the youth hostels and cheap restaurants. Nothing wrong with that but the Lonely Planet TV shows produced by Pilot Guides were and are still based on the budget guidebook at the time. They can't change it's format and presenters. I suppose the Lonely Planet guidebook company decided it would be better to produce their own travel programs, programs that better represent the guidebook as it now is.

Monday, August 22, 2005

MostTraveledMan.com & and where to shoot?

There is a site MostTraveledMan.com, of a a dot.com millionaire, who has spent the few years traveling and traveling and traveling. He holds the new world record for visiting 500 countries and territories is 4 years, 3 months, 15 days. He even visited one of the most dangerous places on earth - Chechnya.

I would love to get his take on the different places he visited.

I'm currently producing thirteen one hour episodes. Why thirteen episodes. For some reason that's what the networks want. thirteen is the magic number for a series. I can shoot anywhere in the world and these are my top ten destinations:

1. Burma - hardly seeing anything shot their but they do have a tourist infrastructure, so it would be a sold adventure in an exotic location.
2. Libya - just opened up for tourism. Really curious what it is like
3. Cuba - as everyone says who has been there go now because after Fidel it will probably be another Miami.
4. Estonia - very curious about this little known country in the very Northern part of Eastern Europe.
5. Iceland - spectacular scenery, particularly the hot springs, or so they say
6. Cartagena, Colombia - contrary to popular opinion it's a very safe city and an architectural gem
7. Vietnam - always interesting to see the mix of communism and capitalism.
8. Nicaragua - I haven't seen many programs on Nicaragua and I've heard it's an interesting travel destination.
9. New Zealand - supposable the most beautiful country on earth.
10. The Arab Emirates - be fun to make a program with a female travel host.
11. Argentina - Buenos AIres - I 've shoot there, have great contacts, would love to do it again
12. New York City - A city I know better than any other place on earth. A true insider's episode.
13. Rio - during Carnival of course. No one is going to NOT watch the program.

And of course for alternate choices:
North Korea - fat chance, eh?
Israel,
Greence
Guyana, in fact all the Guyana's could be interesting ie Surinam and French Guyana.
The small islands in the Caribbean, such as St. Kitts, dominica, Grenada.

Now I know these aren't the most popular tourist places on earth but if you go along with the concept that the audience for travel programs are not really travelers but armchair travelers, interested in entertainment and adventure these are the type of destinations you should be covering.

If you could shoot anywhere in the world what would be your top ten places to visit?

If you watch travel programs, what destinations would you like to see featured?

How Long Does it Take to Produce a One Hour Travel Program?

People often ask me how long does it take to produce a one hour travel program?

I often joke that it takes as long as the size of the budget. The truth is that it usually takes a set amount of time; unless you have several production teams in the field at once you'll be lucky if you can make more than six travel programs a year, as each one takes a good two to three months from start to finish.

Here's the usual timeline:

Week 1: Pick destination and host, contact tourism boards, research destination
Week 2: The researcher works with the writer and/or producer on a draft screenplay
Week 3: Writing on the screenplay continues, with the director's input
Week 4: Producer/Director arrive in destination: Location scouting, meeting with the local producer/fixer
Week 5: first week of production
Week 6: Second week of production
Week 7: Third week of production
Week 8: First Week of editing -rough cut assembled
Week 9 Fine Cut and Sound work
Week 10 Final Cut - Music composed, sound mixed, elements set for delivery

This timeline is based on a production such as Globe Trekker, with the production based on the assumption that at most you will shoot an hour a day, with five minutes of that video ending up in the final cut. Also that a well planned city shoot take two weeks of production; a country, three weeks.

The exceptions:

A reality type travel program such as Discovery Travel Channel "Five Takes" takes only a week TOTAL, from start to finish, with editors working on set, several cameras shooting at once and practically no script, research and location scouting. (it's amazing it's as good as it is)

A half hour essay type travel that relies on a good deal of narration and hosted by Rick Steves or Cash Peters probably takes only a week to shot and a week to edit and score - two weeks total.

An hour host written essay type program such as Anthony Bourdain's No Reservation probably takes only a week to shoot; three weeks to edit, total.

So the answer is that a travel program takes one to ten weeks, although ten weeks is often the ideal. I would bet that the really well funded travel channel such as BBC's Michael Palin expeditions take months to shoot and edit.

How long did it take for you to shoot your travel program?

Acquisition vs. Commission

I've often wondered why networks pay so much less for acquisitions than commissions?

It would seem that if you produced a program they wanted to buy and it fit into their programming needs they would pay at least as much as if it was a program they produced.

After all they're not working in thin air, off just a pitch treatment or a demo. The program is actually a physical entity, something they can see, make changes if need be. Logically a finished film should cost more than a commisison.

The reality is this: in most cases a network will pay at most half of what they would spend on a commission. Often they will pay as little as a quarter (or even less!) of a commission budget AND this is for programs where they can own the copyright. I doubt any producer will come near to recovering his production costs if he depends on an acquisition.

Well there are reasons for this and it goes like this:

1. Because they can, so they do. Inventories are always filled. No one really needs your single episode program - the system is set up for series. If you only have one buyer for a program the buyer sets the price.

2. Networks want to produce programs, not buy them. They will buy if the price is right and to fill a hole in their schedule - but really all they really want to do is produce, to develop programs, have a say in the selection of the host, have editorial content.

For them buying a program that they have nothing to do with is as exciting as buying a spare tire.

It ain't fair but that's how it is. The lesson to be learned - If you can always go for the commission.

The New Direction in Travel Programming

There is a new direction in travel programming. You see it on the Discovery Travel Channel and on the Fine Living Network, the two main providers of travel programming in the US. You see it also on the PBS travel programmers, although to a lesser extent.

As I discussed list informational based travel programs are out. Video on Demand will service the real traveler market: the viewers who buy travel guidebooks and actually travel, rather than travel vicariously through travel programs.

The new travel programs are host driven, story based, with memorable characters and a beginning, middle and end. They are about the journey, rather than the destination. Exotic destinations are in, the usual domestic destinations - Vegas, Orlando, etc - are out.

The usual production house who created non hosted list travel programmers following the old tired format will have a hard time competing on this playing field. Some of them will go back to where they started, producing industrials. Others will try their hand at the more difficult job of story telling and truly entertaining an audience.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Video on Demand- Travel Programmers have it both ways?

OK. So there are two different audiences for travel programs.

One audience, the majority of the viewers, the 25-65 demographic does not travel, but they are intrigued by travel.. For them the more exotic the travel location the more interesting it is too watch. If the host is witty, the writing amusing, that'’s all that matters. They'’re armchair travelers, looking for ENTERTAINMENT

The other audience, 22-25 year olds and 65 plus, are planning their trip. For the younger traveler it might mean adventure travel or just the usual European tour. For the older audience who travels in group tours it could be anywhere, as group travel creates a feeling that if anything happens to you someone will be there to help you out. How much will this hotel cost me? What restaurant should I go to? Basically list type shows - The Worlds Best, etc, are what they are looking for. They want a travel program that is more like a guidebook (in fact a video of a travel destination, if done well, is a nice compliment to a guidebook. It'’s a wonder that more guidebooks companies do not produce their own travel programs) This audience , the kind that actually travels, wants to be entertained but they want and need travel INFORMATION.

ENTER VIDEO ON DEMAND

There is no need for travel networks to solely produce lists shows and alienate the core travel audience, the armchair traveler. These types of programmers can now go up on the server. If you are going to Brazil you don'’t have to wait a half a year for a program to appear on the Travel Channel, you can just download it and see it at anytime, and if it is downloaded to your computer, you can even see it while you are traveling.

My travel program The Best of Buenos Aries
is selling very well at Totalvid.com and I'm finding that half the viewers are watching it in Buenos Aires. Since it is in English my guess is that tourists are watching it while they are on vacation in Buenos Aires, to check out the various sites before deciding what to see.

List shows are the inventory for Video on Demand. The Travel Channel's programming needs has shifted, to travel entertainment, a subject I will take up in the next post.

The Travel TV Programmer's Dilemma

The Discovery Travel Channel has shifted their programming criteria and I'll explain why (or why I think why?).

Really it goes to the root of why people watch travel programming and why some travel programs do better in the rating than others.

First of all, most of the people who watch travel programs don't really travel or don't travel much. They certainly don't go on treks into the Himalayas or visit exotic locations such as New Guinea or even New Zealand. Rather they are armchair travelers.

Consider the statistics:

Only 18 percent of Americans have passports: That means if Americans travel they mostly travel domestically, which is basically travel to Las Vegas, to Disneyland or the National Parks.

The average American only gets two weeks vacation a year: Most prefer to stay at home during those two weeks. Two weeks vacation time is very little by the way compared to the rest of the developed world. By law most European countries require four, even six weeks of vacation.

Travel is an age specific activity:
Most people travel when they are just out of college, age 22-25 and for Americans that means the European tour, staying at Youth Hostels, moving around with European train Passes. There are travel guidebooks such as Let's Go and Lonely Planet (although less so now) totally devoted to that demographic and the excellent travel program Globe Trekker (formerly Lonely Planet) target that market.

The other travel demographic is 65-70, right after retirement and that usually means travel in groups, as there are health issues. This group is catching up on what they missed during their work years, when they had to face the time consuming responsibilities of raising a family. Travel guidebooks such as Fodor's and Frommer's deal with this demographic, as well as Rudy Maxx's Savvy Traveler and Rick Steves' Backdoor to Europe.



In the 25-65 demographics travel usually means going on domestic trips with the kids or, for the younger couples demographic, fun in the sun on a one week cruise or at a all inclusive resort such as Sandals. This demographic by the way is the Discovery Travel Channel demographic, basically people who don't travel but they do take vacations, and advertisers that sell these type of vacations make up a certain percentage of the commercials. The majority of the commercials are non travel products, such as insurance, credit card companies, motion picture, drug companies, package goods, etc.

So this is the central dilemma for programming in the Travel Channel. Most of your audience doesn't really travel and does not care about getting information about travel but a certain percentage does want this information. What do you do? Enter VOD (video on demand), to the rescue, so you can have it both ways, and appeal to the traveler and non-traveler alike.

My Reality Check at the Travel Channel

Looking back at it and knowing what I know now it makes perfect sense why the Travel Channel didn't acquire my first program.

Let me digress for a moment. Prior to producing my first television program on spec (ie I spent my own money, something that producers shouldn't normally do if they want to stay in business, but what you have to do when breaking into a new field of production) I had produced three feature films.

Producing three feature films is a great resume if you want to produce a fourth feature film but these were fictional dramatic films, made to be shown in movie theaters. As far as the world of cable television goes, and in particular the Discovery Travel Channel, I had no track record, no experience in non-fictional TV production. If Steven Spielberg had come to the Discovery Travel Channel with a pitch maybe he would get some development money to create a pilot but that's Steven Spielberg. Most filmmakers like myself in the feature film business wouldn't get the time of day, and for good reason. Dramatic filmmaking and documentary filmmaking, particularly formats for cable television, are apples and oranges. Making a dramatic films only implies that you can a television program, it's certainly no guarantee and why should a network take a risk? There are plenty of well established companies with track records that s/he can work with.

A filmmaker deciding to move into a new area of production, whether television, commercials, music videos, feature films, industrials is really starting at the bottom. If you are more established, have a track record in a type of production the client will let you enter the development stage, where you pitch an idea with a treatment, timeline, budget and demo and they'll make a decision on whether they want to take the risk of funding a pilot. Sometimes you don't even have to submit a demo if you have a track record with the network.

Since I didn't have any track record in television production I had no alternative but to bite the bullet and make a program as considerably time and expense and slip in as an acquisition and that's what I did. It's not a conservative move but it's your only option. YOU HAVE TO MAKE SOMETHING, hopefully that fits into their programming needs. If you are an outsider, with insider information on their programming need, you must study program schedules and produce something in a format and subject they already broadcast, so that's what I did. I honed in on the Anthology series format.

Unfortunately their programming needs had changed, as I was soon to find out.

'The Best of Buenos Aires" - Continued

OK. So the first program 'The Best of Buenos Aires" is finished for acquisition and I send it off to the Travel Channel acquisition department.

It usually takes two months for a network such as the Travel Channel to get back to you. When they did the news wasn't what I had wished for or, to be honest, expected. They decided for the moment not to acquire it, although of course they might buy it later; however, based on my submission they must have regarded me as a producer they might want to work with in the future, as they put me on their email list for updated information about their programming needs. The news wasn't all that bad. I had tried to hit a home run but felt I had singled. At least I was in the game.

Of course this was a mostly a disappointment.. I was starting a new business, the fifth new business in my life - all of which have been successful to a greater or less extent. More over I had invested a good deal of money, and more importantly, time in creating a program what I thought was a very well crafted product, something that my intended client the Travel Channel would buy.

Also frankly I surprised that they didn't buy it. It was a definite setback for my ambition to create a travel film company that produced the very best travel programs.

I felt I had given them what I thought was exactly what they wanted. When I edited the film I put one of their "World's Best" programs in the editing timeline, directly above my program. I realized that this type of program followed a strict format, so strict in fact that it could be produced using an an assembly line. With writer/producers altering each narration slightly, the production crew shooting the same list of shots and editors putting it into its final format.

For example most - if not all - of these programs has the following characteristics:

1. A total length of 43-45 minutes. The reminder of the hour is devoted to commercials
2. Four segments of 5-10 minutes, with breaks for commercials.
3. Each segment had two to three "bests" in the countdown format, with a summation of the top five in the middle segment and the top ten in the final segment
3. An introduction of 1.5 minutes.
4. A hook at the end of each segment to get the viewer to return after the commercial and a lead in at the beginning of the next segment.
5. First rate video, sound, graphics and music
6. Approximately three short sound byte interviews
7. A standard unoriginal narration spoken by a first rate voice over artists reading, making it sound better then it was written.
8. The narration was particularly trying to write, as they always describe things in tourist brochure generic terms: every beach is breathtaking, every sunset spectacular, every view beautiful, etc.
And also the same phrases in practically all the "World's Best" programs, as if they took one episode and just used a word replace function to differentiate it from other episodes: For example:

"With so many things to do how do you decide which one the right one"
"We were invited behind the scenes (in the restaurant kitchen, etc)...."
"We studied all the options and have come up with this list of the Ten Best"

Anyway I studied the genre and I had nailed it.

So what had I done wrong? Why weren't they buying?

How we got started - "The Best of Buenos Aires" - continued

The second type of Travel program that the Travel Channel produces are hosted programs. At the time - back in 2002 when I attended the Real Screen Summit for the first time, the Travel Channel had several of these types of programs, the most well known being "Great Hotels" with Samantha Brown, produced by Pine Ridge Production out of Florida. The general consensusin the industry is that hosted programs get better ratings then non-hosted programs. The host develops a following over time and the audience continually watches the show because of the host. With a host program the destination is not the primary reason for watching the program. A host can visit a boring destination and the audience will still watch the show, because they like watching the host above all. With non hosted travel programs usually the destination is the main reason the viewer stays tuned.

Of course the big IF is that sufficient people most be interested in the host for the program to do well with the ratings. Great hosts are hard to find. Trust me on this, I’ve been casting a hosted travel program for three months now, auditioned hundreds of hosts and it’s not easy to find a really great one.:hence,; a hosted program is more problematic than a list or anthology travel program. Another problem from an economic point of view for the network is that if a host show does find attract an audience they can command a higher salary if the program is renewed. Of course the reality of travel programs is that there aren’t that many broadcast outlets for travel programs, so the added cost to a production is not as great as say the cost of a movie star or cast member on a network television series.

To come back to the topic of this post “How we got started - "The Best of Buenos Aires" I decided to produce an anthology type travel program for acquisition by the Travel Channel and selected the anthology series “Worlds Best” for my first production.

I also researched the various tourist destinations and notices that there was no programs about Buenos Aires. In 2001 Buenos Aires and Argentina was going through political turmoil. The peso was tied to the dollar one-to-one. Consequently Buenos Aires was one of the most expensive cities in the world. Tourists were paying about the same price for a hotel room or dinner in a good restaurant as New York City!

Then the situation changed dramatically. The currency was devalued to three pesos for a dollar and suddenly a world class city such as Buenos Aires cost almost as much for a tourist as cities as some of the most inexpensive cities in the world. For example a steak dinner in a high end restaurant with wine now cost around fifteen dollars when before it cost nearly fifty dollars. The price of a room in a first class hotel was under two hundred dollars. At the same time the Euro appreciated against the dollar by thirty percent. The result was that tourism vastly increased in Buenos Aires. American tourists in particular did the math. They could spend three weeks in Buenos Aires for what it would cost them for a one week stay in say Paris. Armed with this information I flew down to Buenos Aires, hired a local cameraman and sound-man that I contacted on the internet and spent three weeks shooting a Ten Best program anthology program specifically for the Travel Channel.

When I returned to New York I started the editing, which took three weeks. I found a royalty free recording of tango music for the soundtrack. For the voice over narration - a requirement for these type of travel programs - I found a site on the web voice 1-2-3 that was exactly what I wanted. For no cost to the producer using the site he or she can email a one minute sample script of the required voice over and listen online to submissions from voice over artists from literally all over the world. The next step was to contact the individual voice over artists, quote a price, for which they accepted or rejected. I found the quotes for the voice over narration ranged from two hundred dollars to a high of over two thousand dollars, a wide range to say the least.

I decided on a voice over from a fellow in Los Angeles. At a slight risk I sent him a cash advance via paypal. The next day I was on the phone with him and we worked together on the narration. He did a fine job and FTP’d me mp3 files of his recordings for me to lay under the picture.

My first Travel Channel production, produced totally on spec, was completed and submitted in the required VHS format and also a DVD was sent out for acquisition to the Travel Channel.

Now I waited for a reply.

To be continued....

Saturday, August 13, 2005

How we got started - "The Best of Buenos Aires"






Let start at the beginning, our first travel program "The Best of Buenos Aires". How we got started.

I think I can say that the travel production of CNI Cinema started in February 2002. Prior to that we were only producing feature films. We produced thee of them "The Kirlian Witness", distributed by Paramount Pictures, "Ramona", distributed by Curb Communications and "Best Beverly Hills, distributed by Trident Releasing.

I was attending the excellent Real Screen Conference in Washington, D. C.. At events such as this producers network with television network executives, mainly programmers. One session that is very well attended is called "30 minutes with". It's a great concept. Small groups of cable television producers and wannabe producers get to meet with execs at different networks. At the meetings the executives present their upcoming programing guidelines - What programs they are looking for, what is currently in development, what has already gone to pilot. The sessions cover most the the major cable networks, including Discovery, National Geographic, Bravo, A & E, HBO, Fine Living Network, Outdoor Network.

I attended several sessions. I have a great love for travel, so naturally I attended the Discovery Travel Channel seminar, where a very energetic programmer Doug DePreist, spoke to the producers about what the Travel Channel was were looking for. At that time the Travel Channel hadn't discovered Poker or Las Vegas, and most of the programs were rather typical travel programs referred to as anthologies, such “Worlds Best Such and Such", Secrets of Such and Such" and so forth.

These type of programs are referred to as list or countdown programs, where a destination is selected - a city, a country or region , and the program goes about picking the top ten in the destination. They are basically tourism promotional videos, Relatively cheap and easy programs to produce, the list programs feature a narrator, usually a bland voice over actor, generic typical tourism videos - beautiful beaches, aerial shots of a resort, and edited with interviews with locals involved in the tourism industry and tourists themselves.

The skill set involved are not out reach of the average wedding videographer. Relatively inexpensive to produce they can involve no more than a film crew of two people. The format is such, that they can be edited almost on an assembly line, with individual editors working on different sequences and the main editor arranging them in order and cutting in the lead in to the next sequence that precedes and follows the commercials that generally take up fifteen minutes of an hour of programming.

To be continued

Friday, August 12, 2005

Taking On Interns

For the past few months I've been interviewing hundreds of job applicants to work on our travel programs. I've seen people who want to be presenters, operate the camera, direct, take sound, write scripts and project proposals, work in the sales and marketing, either ona full time or freelance basis.

Also I've been interviewing for interns. Some interns are non film students, people that simply have no skills in filmmaking, have never worked on a film project before. Some are highly motivated to learn but do I have the patience to teach them? Sometimes there are so many skills they need that I might as well do it myself or delegate it with a skilled employee.

The other type of interns are the film students, who work about twenty hours a week for college credit. I've made presentations at all the film schools in the New York area or universities that have film programs - NYU, Columbia, School of Visual Arts, Kathrine GIbbs, Harvard, Yale and Hunter College.

If you look at the resumes of the various candidates you'll find that many of them have interned at MTV, HBO, and several of the other large media companies in New York. Interns are great for these types of companies. They have a large staff in place, are shooting hundreds of hours of videos and for no cost to them they can give them a small assignment like answeirng the phone or digitizing video into the computer and free up their staff for the more skilled work.

In a small production company like CNI Cinema there isn't allot of this unskilled work to do but the work does exist to get locations, contact interview subjects and of course digitize footage.

I think the main problems I have taking on interns is two fold:

1. Most people have never worked on a travel program before or even watched many shows, so you have to start from scatch with them and explain the genre, which is time consuming.

2. Many interns are looking for a paid job. You have to ask yourself if I take them on do I want to work with them
on the long term? If the answer is no, that you only consider them as a cost cutting expense it's better to do the job yourself or give it to one of your more experienced staff.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Casting for the Presenter

In travel shows everything depends upon the presenter, in fact presenters can be more important then even the script. If you are fortunate enough to find a really great one, someone that the audience will tune in to wach and travel with time and time again, most of your work is done for you.

You would be surprised at how many people think they have what it takes. Globe Trekker reported looked at over three thousand candidates when they started out. Ten years later and they really have only three top notch ones: Ian Wright, Megan McCormick and Justine Shapiro.

The real work is finding them. For the past three months, starting in April 2005, I've been casting for the ideal presenter. This is all I've done, 24/7. Casting if done right is a very labor intensive activity but well worth the effort. Also for a travel show you can't cast through casting agents or even agents, as they really don't have the right candidates. Most of their experience is casting news reporters experienced at reading from a teleprompter. This is not the same skill set as presenting on a travel show.

To find the presenters I've advertised in Backstage numerous times, on Craig's list and on the CNI Cinema site. I've received over five hundred resumes from actors, sketch comedy artists and travel writers, the three groups I draw on to find a presenter. Personally I think sketch comedy artists make the best presenter, since the work requires a good deal of improvisation and witty repartee with interview subjects.

Of the five hundred resumes I received I emailed back and asked each one to send in a five minute demo, something that Globe Trekker does and how they found Ian Wright. For a travel show you really can't judge a candidate solely from a resume and photo and it was out of the question to see all five hundred submissions.
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Ian Wright for example was cast from a demo tape. Read below how he got the job and the description of the tape:

"How did you get the Globe Trekker presenter job?

I was also doing a bit of video, which is a great medium. A friend of mine saw this ad in the newspaper for a presenter:… young, enthusiastic, done a bit of traveling. I hadtravele to Egypt for a couple of months, Nepal and India for seven months, Guyana for three months, hitchhiked though Ireland, and the whole of Europe. I sent a show reel for a laugh, Channel 4 loved it, and I've never looked back since!

What do you think distinguished you from the others wannabes?

You know, in any show reel, the first 10-20 seconds are the most important. You see, they have thousands to look at, and about 90 percent are identical. You've got to start with the biggest punch you can so that people carry on watching!

My showreel was a joke, five minutes long me in Liverpool Street Station (London) and all my bags fall over. I slip along the floor, hit my head on the camera and start the piece to camera: "Here we are in London " Then I was trying to change money on the black market, getting beaten up. There was a sequence when I was on the toilet talking about the rich food and advising visitors to take it easy. Then I was getting arrested, ended up in jail. I sent it for a joke, although part of me was hoping, Then I got the letter back for the interview!
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I got about one hundred and fifty tapes, some from as far away as California although I stated in my email to the candidates that I was doing the casting in New York City. Most of the tapes were basically boring guidebook type tapes with the prospective presenter walking around a destination and delivering facts, much like a tour guide. Anyone after all can make travel show about facts. Shows such as Rick Steves "Backdoor to Europe" and Rudy Maxx's "Savvy Traveler" are just that, guide tours on video. More interesting are travel shows that have wit, create scenes, situations and feature memorable characters.

A travel show should be more about the experience of traveling rather than just the facts about a destination, like Ian Wrights audition tape in which he changes money on the black market, gets beaten up, etc. In my opinion Ian Wright was born to host a travel program host and his tape was inspired!

I viewed all the tapes and set up half hour appointments with about fifty of the candidates, using an online scheduling program appointment quest. Without this software I would have had to hire a full time secretary to co-ordinate all appiontments and call all the candidates.

Each episode for the travel series requires two presenters . After interviewing the candidates I now have a pool of about twenty strong performers to select for the final cast. I consider them on a level with the top presenters in the current crop of travel programs and feel confident I can produce a first rate series.