ƒ Curious Travelers Television: Review: Take Five Europe on Discovery Travel Channel Breaks New Ground!

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giving it an up to date feel, something lacking in travel programs, that often air a year after they are shot and have outdated information, for example, on prices for accommodations, vital info for the traveler.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.