Streaming

Ep. 20: The State of the Streaming Art

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Mike, Dennis, and John look at how far the streaming world has come from the Game of Thrones disaster two years ago, with HBO Max now offering reference-quality video—a standard more and more services are now able to meet. They also consider whether the affordable day & date model the studios adopted during the pandemic is likely to last, the problem of subscription overload, and wonder why Hollywood even bothered with the Oscars this year.

 

Highlights

 

  1:39   a brief description of the progression from Game of Thrones‘ lousy video to the reference-quality images in              Those Who Wish Me Dead

  2:38   streaming codecs can now handle chaotic images, like of a forest fire, without distortion

  4:24   the paucity of 4K HDR titles on HBO Max

  5:14   the increasing number of streaming services capable of reference-quality playback

  5:53   how even HD now looks better on Netflix and Disney+

  7:16   Amazon and The Criterion Channel need to improve their HD playback

10:11   how streaming quality is determined by the quality of both the service and the hardware

10:30   Roku vs. Nvidia Shield vs. Apple TV vs. TV apps

11:20   John expresses concerns about streaming’s audio quality

13:04   Dennis discusses Dolby Labs’ tests that show streaming is capable of reference-quality audio

14:04   Apple TV+ vs. Disney+ vs. Netflix vs. HBO Max vs. Amazon vs. Hulu vs. The Criterion Channel

16:12   will streaming soon become the only home-video format?

19:12   the increasing problem of too many subscriptions

21:31   Sony distributing its films on Netflix and elsewhere instead of setting up its own channel

25:05   will streaming continue to do day & date or will big movies go back to debuting in theaters first?

29:21   will the strength of streaming coming out of the pandemic doom movie theaters?

33:20   was there any real value in doing the Oscars during the year of a pandemic?

34:33   the Oscars don’t adequately take streaming into account, especially streaming series

39:30   John talks about the promise of Sony’s new Bravia Core streaming service 

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Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

HBO Atones for Its Streaming Sins

HBO Atones For Its Streaming Sins

It may seem like eons ago (and hey, maybe we can blame the pandemic and its time-warping effect for that), but it’s only been a little over two years now since the entirety of the entertainment press was consumed with discussions about HBO’s inability to effectively stream its most popular show in anything approaching acceptable quality. Reliance on older, inefficient streaming codecs combined with insufficient server capacity made the Game of Thrones episode “The Long Night” an unwatchable nightmare of lackluster contrasts, blocky artifacts, and excessive banding for many viewers—especially those

tuning in on HBO Go or HBO Now, the company’s streaming apps du jour. And that’s all the ammunition the “Streaming sucks!” crowd needed to continue their crusade against the future of video content delivery.

 

Fast-forward to 2021, and both Go and Now have been shelved in favor of HBO Max, a newer platform that’s home to all manner of WarnerMedia content, not merely its premium-cable offerings. But perhaps the most significant side effect of all this app shuffling is that HBO seems to have finally gotten its act together in terms of streaming video quality.

 

This really hit home for me when I was watching the theater-at-home release of Those Who Wish Me Dead. Not to dig too deeply into the substance of the movie (what little there is), but the TL;DR version is that it involves a political hit-job and manhunt that’s all an overly elaborate setup for a heart-pounding chase sequence in the middle of an out-of-control wildfire in the Montana wilderness.

 

Right near the action-packed climax, a stray thought struck me and I couldn’t let it go: This movie must be absolute nightmare fuel for a video encoder. Even with the benefit of 4K Dolby Vision, there’s so much going on in the picture that maintaining the intense contrasts of a fire raging through a forest at night and rendering all of the detail from the soot and sparks blowing in the air couldn’t have been easy. What’s more, many scenes were shot with relatively shallow depth of field, which can be tricky for even the best video codecs to handle consistently. 

 

As soon as I glommed onto all that, the question for me wasn’t whether there were compression artifacts. It was how close I would have to get to the screen to see them. So I stood up and walked about half the distance from my seat to my screen. The image still looked incredible. So I took another step and halved the distance again. I still couldn’t see any of the telltale signs of video compression.

 

To make a long story short, in complete defiance of Zeno, I eventually ended up with my nose practically on the screen, and I still couldn’t see the glitches and misplaced pixels and posterization that result from HEVC (the video codec used for 4K HDR video material) reaching its breaking point.

 

Mind you, HBO Max still doesn’t have a lot in the way of Dolby Vision content to stream. Most of its offerings are in HD (despite the fact that 4K HDR masters exist, many of which have been released on UHD Blu-ray), and by and 

large the service still relies on the same AVC video codec that caused all the problems with Game of Thrones. True, it’s operating at around 2.5 to 3 times the bitrate of HBO Go and HBO Now, proving that WarnerMedia has decided to invest a bit more in server storage. The result, though, is that much of what you’ll find on HBO Max looks very good, but not quite reference quality.

 

But Those Who Wish Me Dead proves that HBO Max is at least capable of delivering a practically flawless home cinema experience. The company whose name was, just a few years ago, synonymous with the nadir of video quality has now proven it can deliver a level of visual excellence matched by perhaps 200 cinema screens worldwide, at last count.

 

That’s assuming, of course, you have an AV system capable of delivering on such quality. Most people don’t. It’s also assuming you’re doing your streaming via a high-quality source device. Most people don’t. 

 

But still, my recent experiences with HBO Max—for all my complaints about their abysmal user interface and lackluster search tools—proves the company that was once the laughingstock of the streaming world now at least has the potential to deliver video quality that’s a massive step up from the average screen at your local multiplex. And if nothing else, that shows just how far streaming has come, even in the past two years alone.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The 75-Inch Revolution

The 75-Inch Revolution

I’m going to mention some things here that are probably pretty obvious to anyone who hasn’t spent the past couple of years wandering the Himalayas with their sherpa. But beyond those more commonplace facts lies a larger truth—that in just the past couple of years home entertainment has changed in ways that go well beyond even the unbridled crowing of the most rah-rah marketing hype.

 

No matter where you live, it’s impossible to ignore that the new entry level for TVs is 75 inches. Even if that screen size is way too big for many people’s homes, it’s still the size they hunger for. And sets like that have become readily affordable, making 42-inch sets seem as quaint as 19-inch screens seemed at the dawn of the HDTV era.

 

Here’s the more important point: Many of those models can provide reference-quality image reproduction, even toward the lower end of the price spectrum. This has never happened before. We are rapidly reaching a point where a good chunk of the 

An unprecedented number
of people now have video
displays that can beat the
previous gold standard of
the movie theater

American populace has sets that can create a better-than-movie-theater experience at home. And with relative ease. And for a relatively small investment.

 

But . . .

 

Just because somebody’s set is capable of that kind of performance doesn’t mean they have it set up to take 

advantage of that, or they even know their set can do that. And it doesn’t mean they have it placed properly in the room or even have it in an appropriate room—chances are, they don’t. It also doesn’t necessarily mean the rest of their system is up to snuff—again, it’s probably not.

 

But one thing that’s more than likely true is that many of them also have at least one signal source that’s capable of besting their local movie theater. That has also never happened before. Streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, and HBO Max are reaching the point where only trained viewers can perceive differences from reference-quality playback. And even that gap is closing rapidly.

 

So, an unprecedented number of people now have displays that can beat the increasingly irrelevant gold standard of the movie theater. And an unprecedented number now have access to content delivery that also exceeds that standard.

Again, that doesn’t mean they have their systems set up to take advantage of that, but the potential is there nonetheless.

 

So what does this all mean, and what does it portend?

 

First off, to take aim squarely at the gorilla in the room: Why the hell do we continue to think we need movie theaters? If 

Just because reference quality
has gone mass market
doesn’t mean there’s nothing
left for the luxury market
to call its own

your system can do it better, and you don’t have to drive there, and your investment in every evening of movie-watching doesn’t have to hover near $100 (at a minimum), and first-run content is showing up day & date on streaming, and you don’t have to watch ads if you don’t want to, and you can instantly switch to another film if your first choice sucks, and you’ve got the option of taking anybody who talks during the movie and locking them up in the basement, why would you think of theaters as anything other than the quaint, and mostly unpleasant, relics they are?

 

Second, things will inevitably get better from here. As more people become aware of what their systems can do, it can only lead to better viewing environments, better gear for those environments, and even better content being pumped into those environments. If there’s a downside to any of this, I’m not seeing it. (The whole “movies have to be a communal experience” argument is usually promulgated by Hollywood types who haven’t sullied themselves with The Great Unwashed in years, if ever.)

 

But just because reference quality has gone mass market doesn’t mean there’s nothing left for the luxury market to call its own. The list is long, but just to tick off a few things: Video walls will remain hugely expensive for the foreseeable future, but represent all but unexplored territory in the home environment. It takes a custom-designed, -built, and -tuned room to consistently have a reference-quality experience. Nobody’s figured out how to commodify that, and chances are no one ever will. And good luck trying to integrate a full-blown Atmos system into a typical middle-American living room without having it look like a CIA black site.

 

You get the point. It’s great that better-than-movie-theater is becoming as common as Kleenex. But not all rooms or systems—or viewers—are created equal. 

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die

Learning When to Let a Good Thing Die

I seem to have misplaced that well-worn piece of cardboard with the pinhole in it that I usually keep by my side. But from my very oblique vantage point, it looks like Joel Hodgson is once again suckering the legions of Mystery Science Theater 3000 addicts to pony up money to create another round of episodes nobody needs except those pathetic and ridiculous lost souls who are content to spend the rest of their lives hermetically sealed in an echo chamber. If Hodgson has proved nothing else, it’s that people will greedily lap up large, fetid piles of horse dung as long as they’ve got the MST3K logo stamped on them.

 

Of course, he’s far from alone. Sometimes the entire culture feels like an exercise in keeping franchises on life support that should have been left to die a quiet death a long, long time ago. 

 

For those of you who don’t know, a few years back, Hodgson & associates staged the most successful Kickstarter campaign until that time to get a season of new MST3K episodes made. The shows, which ultimately landed on Netflix, were awful—terribly cast, lazily made, fundamentally unappealing. But the greatest sin of all was that, for all the money thrown at them, they just weren’t funny. Netflix fulfilled its obligation but, even though they’ll apparently re-up for just about any series this side of video of my uncle taking a nap, they decided to take a pass on another season.

 

But that apparently wasn’t good enough for the MST3K cult, which is now throwing a few million dollars more at creating another set of episodes that only they’ll watch. Of course anybody should be free to put out whatever kind of stiflingly unfunny self-congratulatory twaddle they want as long as there’s an audience for it, no matter how wretched and small. But MST3K once had some worth, and it’s kind of sad to watch Hodgson and friends and hangers-on continue to beat this particular pantomime horse well past the point of death and into dust.

 

Stop. Now. Please.

 

For those of you who really don’t know, MST3K was one of the few truly innovative TV series, a kind of stealth operation originally broadcast out of a UHF station in far-flung Minnesota. At its best, it brought a self-awareness of the mechanics and culture of TV- and moviemaking that had been absent from TV until then. And in the Hodgson era, it had a kind of dopey warmth that made it endearing.

 

The show only became successful because its initial small group of fans started sending around VHS tapes of the episodes, building a kind of clandestine viewership that, as mainstream TV began to fracture, developed a clout that would have been unimaginable in the era of the big networks. Unfortunately, that nerdy zeal, which had been one of the show’s strengths, has since become its curse.

 

To be really blunt, and cut straight to the chase, American culture has become fundamentally bankrupt, and it’s not hard to put a name on the cause: Narcissism. The best way to keep people from coming together for the common good is to appeal to their most selfish instincts, to create the illusion they’re being catered to in ways that inflate their sense of self-importance. I would be hardpressed to name an aspect of the contemporary world that doesn’t in some way exploit that inherently repressive divide-and-conquer strategy. And we all fall victim to it because we’ve all been trained to endlessly love ourselves, and no one else.

 

But it’s all just a stultifying exercise in exploitation. We think we’re being entertained but we’re ultimately just being played—a catch that always comes with the territory whenever you’re talking about franchises, which exist primarily to perpetuate their own existence and will do whatever they have to to survive. Actually pleasing any viewers runs a distant second.

 

Nerd culture, which stands quivering on the foundation of franchises, has been the death knell of entertainment. The tail of stunted emotional development now wags the dog of the larger culture, which no longer displays any nuance, maturity, or meaningful creativity but goes out of its way to pander in an effort (largely successful) to foster blind addiction. The frightening cycle of dependency embodied in MST3K is just the larger culture writ very, very small.

 

Mystery Science Theater 3000 has never been, and never will be, any better than it was in its earliest days when it was funny and new, and funny because it was new. It has since become another cornerstone of pop culture that exists solely to divert those terrified of the new, to be not funny but familiar. We need to begin breaking our addiction to the tried and true and deadening sometime. This would seem like the perfect place to start.

Michael Gaughn

Michael GaughnThe Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Disney+ Needs to Break Its Own Rules

Disney+ Needs to Break Its Own Rules

Throughout March and April, Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier positively dominated the pop-culture conversation. You might have noticed that we at Cineluxe weren’t part of that conversation, but that doesn’t really have much to do with the series itself. It’s a fine show—far from Marvel’s best work, but also far from its worst. The series deals with a lot of big ideas, and although it doesn’t give them all the thorough examination they deserve, it’s still a pretty solid continuation of the Captain America films just without the benefit of Steve Rogers, who hung up the shield at the end of Avengers: Endgame. 

 

So, why the radio silence? Because a discussion of what did and didn’t work about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in and of itself would sort of miss the point. Anyone who tells you they could really wrap their heads around the show before it was available to view in its entirety is lying. The biggest thing holding the series back was that it simply doesn’t hold up as weekly 

appointment television.

 

I’ve riffed on this subject in the past, about how Disney+ represented something of a revival of “water cooler” TV—how its weekly release schedule gave new shows some breathing room, and gave audiences an opportunity to discuss new episodes one at a time in chat rooms, message boards, and around the dinner table. 

 

That really worked to the advantage of the first two seasons of The Mandalorian, and it was practically baked into the premise of WandaVision. Of course, it wasn’t merely a creative decision to release those shows one episode at a

time over the course of a couple of months; it was a necessity, given that neither’s season finale was finished cooking when the first episode hit the table.

 

Forget the reasons for this anti-binging release strategy, though. The fact is that it works—except when it doesn’t. And The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is the perfect example of how a “this is the way we do things” mentality and a dogged adherence to tradition (no matter how new that tradition may be) can hurt a property.

 

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is, at the end of the day, a pretty good five-hour-plus movie. And given its length, it’s nice to have it broken up into six chapters so you can consume it at your own pace over the course of a night or two or an entire week—whichever fits your schedule. But given that it’s effectively one cinematic experience chopped into six roughly equal parts, doling it out over a month and a half of real-world time reminded me of Bilbo Baggins’ famous quote from The Fellowship of the Ring: It feels thin . . . sort of stretched . . . like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.

 

When Disney+ launched, the weekly release schedules were part of its still-forming identity. At this point, though, its identity is pretty well established. It surpassed 100 million subscribers sometime last month. Soon enough, its subscriber base will eclipse that of Netflix (although I hesitate to predict when, since analysts keep moving the goalposts and Disney+ continues to defy their wildest expectations for growth). 

 

At this point, you have to acknowledge that Disney+ is, if not the leader in streaming, at least a leader. Good leaders adapt, though. They have a good sense of what works and what doesn’t. And while the appointment-TV approach certainly works for most of the service’s properties so far, we now have at least one example of every-Friday releases negatively impacting a show’s effectiveness.

 

There was literally no good creative reason to tease out The Falcon and the Winter Soldier over the course of six weeks. Six days, maybe? That could have worked. And the entertainment-industry headlines would have written themselves: “Disney+ Brings Back the Mini-Series with Special Falcon & Winter Soldier Event.”  

 

Disney+ has broken nearly every rule of the streaming marketplace. Surely it can break this rule when it makes sense, even if the rule is its own.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Strange & Maddening Tale of Warner Bros. & HBO Max

The Strange & Maddening Tale of Warner Bros. & HBO Max

My daughter called me last week with what should have been a simple question: “Hey, do we have HBO?”

 

Insert a deep sigh here.

 

I explained to her that, yes, we do indeed have access to HBO Max, and that she would need to sign in with her login for our AT&T Mobile account. But before I could start to dig into all of the problems she might potentially have logging into the app, 

she thanked me, told me she loved me, and hung up. I knew she would be calling back.

 

Five minutes later, the phone rang again. “I can’t get it to work!” she said, obviously exasperated.

 

“Try using your email login rather than your mobile number,” I said. She quickly thanked me, told me she loved me, and hung up. But, again, I knew she would be calling back.

 

Two minutes later, the phone rang once more. “That doesn’t work, either!” So I asked her if she was trying to log into the

app directly or if she was using the “Sign In with TV or Mobile Provider” button. She confirmed that she was using the latter.

 

“I don’t know what to tell you, Punkin. HBO Max has just been a straight-up disaster since the day it launched. Maybe try again later?” And I could hear the frustration building in her voice.

 

“Why do you keep saying HBO Max? What is HBO Max? I just want to watch HBO!”

 

Mind you, my daughter is a tech-savvy Millennial currently attending graduate school. But when I explained to her that there were currently two HBO streaming apps—HBO and HBO Max—and that with the launch of the latter, the company discontinued HBO Go and rebranded HBO Now as simply HBO, but that we only had access to HBO Max and not HBO (at least I think that’s how it works), I may as well have been explaining integral calculus to our American Staffordshire Terrier.

 

And then I remembered something I probably should have thought to ask her from the giddy-up. “Baby, what device are you trying to log into this app on?”

 

“My Roku TV.”

 

“Ah, yeah, HBO Max isn’t on Roku. You’ll have to use your Xbox.”

 

I’ll elide the profanity that followed. I probably don’t need to, though. I can only imagine that if simply accessing this stupid app is so frustrating for a technology writer and his very tech-savvy daughter, it must be an outright nightmare for the casual consumer.

 

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Any number of studio-centric streaming services are straightforward and easy to understand—easy enough that my 78-year-old father (a recent cord-cutter) has no trouble signing into Disney+ or CBS All Access or even Peacock, for goodness’ sake, much less other rivals like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

 

But given how horribly Warner Bros. (a subsidiary of WarnerMedia, owned by AT&T, which also owns HBO) has bungled pretty much every decision it has made this year, is it really any surprise that HBO Max sucks so spectacularly?

 

Just look at the way Warner has handled its theatrical releases in the midst of our current pandemic, constantly shuffling release dates incrementally while other studios have made bold moves, and how it insisted on releasing Tenet to theaters at a time when cinemas in New York and California weren’t even open, much to the detriment of those cinemas that were open and ended up operating at a loss just to exhibit that box-office flop.

 

It gets worse. In the chaotic shuffling that accompanied the launch of HBO Max, there has also been a lot of uncertainty about what would happen to the content streamed on DC Universe, a Warner-owned superhero-centric streaming service that was home to such popular shows as Doom Patrol and Harley Quinn. At first, it seemed that only Doom Patrol would be moving over to HBO Max. Now it seems that Warner is transitioning DC Universe into a digital-comic-book-only platform and folding all of DC Universe’s animated and live-action content into HBO Max. But sadly, DC Universe was the only Warner streaming platform with 4K HDR support. So fans who’ve become accustomed to watching their favorite shows in high quality will now have to suffer an HD downgrade (not to mention pay a heftier monthly subscription, unless they get HBO Max for free as part of their mobile subscriptions, and ugh! I’m getting a headache just typing all of this).

 

I don’t want to gloss over one of the main points of that last paragraph. Here in late 2020, verging on 2021, HBO Max—the premier streaming home for most WarnerMedia movies and TV shows—doesn’t offer any of its content in 4K HDR, and there’s no clear timeline for when it will.

 

Which means all of the big exclusives coming next year—including the long-awaited director’s cut of the butchered Justice League theatrical film—will probably stream in HD quality at best, without the benefit of Dolby Atmos audio. It also means that if you want to watch Game of Thrones in 4K, the only way to do so for now is via a chunky 33-disc boxed set.

 

So, just to summarize for those of you who haven’t been taking notes: Not only has Warner Bros. responded to a global pandemic with stubborn devotion to a dying distribution model, its parent company also seems incapable of putting together a streaming platform that makes a lick of sense, nor one that competes with other similar services in terms of AV quality. If WarnerMedia or AT&T or whoever is making these seemingly never-ending disastrous decisions doesn’t shape up and start cheating off of Disney’s paper, I have a sneaking suspicion one of the biggest casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic may well be Warner.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Good Grief—The Peanuts Moving to Apple TV+ Isn’t the End of the World

Good Grief--The Peanuts Moving to Apple TV+ Isn't the End of the World

If Disney’s restructuring of its media and entertainment divisions to prepare for the streaming future of cinema wasn’t enough to convince you that the media landscape has forever changed, perhaps this will: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is now an Apple TV+ exclusive.

 

The move has been described as an “indignity” and “a disservice to American traditions and the common good” by commentators who probably haven’t watched the special in years. To be frank, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the Peanuts special—which has aired on ABC for the past 20 years and was broadcast by CBS before that every year since its 1966 debut—is such a cultural touchstone that removing it from the airwaves and putting it entirely in the streaming domain 

does seem almost sacrilegious. (Note that I said “almost.”) On the other hand, would we even be talking about The Great Pumpkin right now if not for this development? I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched it on broadcast TV, and I wouldn’t be able to now if I wanted to, since I’m a full-fledged cord-cutter.

 

Before you get up in arms about this (or, depending on your perspective, before you start cheering), there are a few relevant details about the development worth considering. Firstly, The Great Pumpkin will seemingly now be a permanent part of the Apple TV+ lineup, viewable any time of the year for those who subscribe to the service. 

Interestingly, though, Apple is also making the special free-to-stream for non-subscribers during a three-day window from October 30 through November 1. So, if the Peanuts gang is part of your annual Halloween tradition, you’ll still be able to tune in without shelling out $4.99 a month, assuming you own a smart TV or a streaming device such as a Roku or, of course, an Apple TV.

 

The same is true of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving—which will hit Apple TV+ on November 18 and stream free from November 25 to November 27—and A Charlie Brown Christmas, which joins the permanent Apple TV+ lineup on December 4, with a free-to-view period running December 11 through December 13. Will these three-day free windows become an annual tradition? One can assume so. And Apple has also announced the development of a glut of new Peanuts holiday specials, including ones for Mother’s Day, New Year’s, and Earth Day.

 

It’s a big win for the streaming service, which hasn’t enjoyed the same success as competitors like Netflix and Disney+. But will it be a similar win for viewers? That’s a tougher question to answer. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown has been available on home video for years now, and I’m pretty sure I recently saw the special-edition DVD in the $5 bin at Walmart, so it’s not as if this is some sacred artifact that loses its luster if audiences can view it more than once a year in this specific release window.

 

And as I said, as someone who doesn’t own the DVD, and who no longer subscribes to cable or satellite (and who also, not incidentally, lives in a neighborhood full of 100- and 200-foot-tall trees, making antenna reception all but impossible), this free Apple TV+ release means I’ll be able to watch The Great Pumpkin for the first time in years. And I plan to do so.

 

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that something about all of this just feels a little wrong. Not an affront to the soul of America, as some would have you believe, but still . . . just a little wrong.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Can Live Theater Thrive Online?

Inside "Forbidden Broadway"

In Part One, I talked to Tony-winning writer/director Gerard Alessandrini about the genesis of Spamilton, his highly acclaimed spoof of the megahit musical Hamilton. Here we discuss the challenges of getting his show in front of the massive audience that was introduced to Hamilton when it appeared on Disney+, the prospects for touring the latest edition of his legendary revue Forbidden Broadway, and the impact the pandemic is having on the theater world in general.

—Michael Gaughn

It seems like a missed opportunity that you can’t have Spamilton on tour now that everyone’s seen Hamilton.

We’re a little disappointed that theater isn’t happening around the country, because we did have a tour of Spamilton out that was going to many of the cities where Hamilton had already played. Now that Hamilton has been on Disney+, I’m sure we 

would have been getting a lot of bookings and having a lot of fun touring.

 

One thing that bodes well is that Hamilton will probably remain in cycle on Disney+ or elsewhere, so there will still be interest in the show when you do get a tour out.

I absolutely think that’s true. It’ll still be there and everybody will know it from the point of view of the original cast, which is how I wrote Spamilton. So, yes, hopefully down the line, it’ll really make Spamilton more accessible and topical.

 

There is an interesting dynamic now in that Hamilton will still be prohibitively expensive to see when it gets to go back on tour—balcony seats were selling for more than $700 for the Atlanta dates—but you now have a mass audience that’s been exposed to the show through Disney+ that would probably be eager to see Spamilton live—partly because your ticket prices aren’t stratospheric.

That’s exactly right. But, of course, Hamilton is on hiatus, too—there’s no Hamilton in New York; there’s no Hamilton on tour. I’m sure they must be frustrated also.

 

Which of the other recent Broadway shows would lend themselves well to a broader audience via video?

The only show that followed Hamilton that sort of had a freshness and depth to it was Dear Evan Hansen. But I don’t know if they’ve done a video of that. The Hamilton video was done well because they had the money and the opportunity. The show was already a huge, huge hit. But 

most shows don’t have the budget to do a high-quality video production. Rather than record a performance, most producers were probably thinking in the old tradition of “Oh, this will be made into a movie.”

 

But a few other shows besides Hamilton have done high-end videos that are enjoying broadcast. One I saw was SpongeBob: The Musical on Nickelodeon—don’t laugh—and they did an excellent video of it. It was very fun.

You also had a cast for Forbidden Broadway all ready to go out on tour when this hit, right? So, now you’ve got two shows that are sort of sitting in limbo.

We had three or four individual productions of Forbidden Broadway planned for the summer. I know we had one in San Diego, and the San Francisco Gay Men’s

Can Theater Thrive Online?

SpongeBob SquarePants: The Broadway Musical

Chorus was going to do a special and hysterical version.

 

There’s a wonderful regional theater down the street from where I live in Connecticut that’s been celebrated for decades—The Ivoryton Playhouse. We were all ready to do Forbidden Broadway Comes to Ivoryton. I was directing it and writing special material for The Playhouse. We got right up to dress rehearsal. Then we had to stop. All those productions got either postponed or are indefinitely up in the air. So, we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen.

 

What’s your guess about how this is going to play out for those productions?

I think it’s going to be a long time. They’re going to have to have a vaccine before people go back in the theater. Even if the government lets us open these theaters, who wants to risk their lives to see any kind of musical comedy or even a good play? I think theater has been sort of damaged and may have to reinvent itself from the ground up.

 

But I do want to make a guess that the smaller, Off-Broadway theaters and smaller shows like Spamilton and Forbidden Broadway will come back first, because to make a big show work financially, you have to pack a 2,000-seat theater, whereas with Off-Broadway, believe me, we can run with a small audience and make it work. We can even take away seats and make

room.

 

I think the tourism of theater is pretty much going to be on hold for a long time in New York, but New Yorkers are actually going to want to go see something. Ergo, Off-Broadway may have a resurgence.

 

And it’s a lot easier to shoot a smaller show for streaming than a big Broadway show.

We do have some good video of Forbidden Broadway and Spamilton. In the old-school tradition, we also have terrific cast albums that are very professionally done. Cast albums are still viable entertainment.

 

If there’s one good thing for me about Broadway ending or freezing it’s that now neither Spamilton or Forbidden 

Can Theater Thrive Online?

Broadway: The Next Generation are dating in any way. They’re still right up to date.

 

One of the problems with New York theater being closed through at least early next year is that the talent is dispersing out of economic need. It’s too expensive to stay hunkered down in Manhattan. Actors traditionally make money as waiters but the restaurants only have limited service.

Right. Restaurants are attached to theatergoing in New York. And you’ve got to remember that an actor’s range of talent is time-dependent. In other words, you want to see young, beautiful people in a show—and in the movies as well. A lot of talented younger actors are missing their window of opportunity.

 

For example, they were planning to do that big revival of The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster. But now the stars might be too old for the parts by the time they get around to doing the show. The same is true in sports. Even with the most talented player, that physical prowess and ability to do those wonderful things only lasts a few years where they’re at top peak. By the time they’re in their thirties, they’re too old.

 

There might be a similar problem with hanging onto movies to release them in theaters instead of taking them straight to streaming. Given how quickly everything is changing in society, they could feel out of date by the time they’re released.

How true! I saw a questionable post online that said even Hamilton is out of date because it’s from a different, pre-coronavirus era. I don’t know if that is exactly true but all this has sort of put the kibosh on me as a writer because I write topical humor. So, how do I know something’s going to be funny in six months? I don’t. So, there’s no sense guessing. In the meantime, I’ll stay home and enjoy watching Hamilton and Disney+, and TCM On Demand.

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

One Band’s Solution to a World Without Touring

One Band's Solution to a World Without Touring

One of my favorite bands, Guided by Voices (aka GBV) has found an interesting way to stay in business and keep its legion of fans engaged amidst the current pandemic. The band had to cancel its concert schedule, which would have taken it across America and into Canada and England. Instead, GBV has initiated several special programs: A virtual “world tour” livestreaming event, which aired on Friday; a fan subscription music series; and a new album coming out in August.

 

If you’re not familiar with GBV, they are in some ways indie rock’s answer to The Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen, and Pearl Jam (the last named are big GBV fans, btw). All three have fanatical, dedicated fans who gleefully collect most everything they release, from live concerts to special merchandise and a wealth of recordings. All three deliver epic live concert 

experiences with long, ever-changing set lists. And they all have extensive catalogs of studio and live recordings.

 

GBV has released more than 100 albums and singles, and shows no signs of slowing down. Band founder, lead singer, and main songwriter Robert Pollard has built a remarkable cottage industry from home and studio recordings, DVDs, books, T-shirts, and other merchandise. GBV more or less defined the DIY indie-rock spirit of the 1990s, literally rising from Pollard’s basement to concert stages around the world. The group has succeeded against all possible odds.

 

For the uninitiated who may wonder what GBV sounds like, it begins with late-‘60s British Invasion sounds, such as the The Who and The Kinks mixed with the harder early-’70s vibe of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Toss in joyous power pop, new wave, bubblegum, punk, and psychedelic influences, and the result is a wonderfully eclectic brew that is new yet familiar. Earworms grow with every listen to GBV recordings. But live on stage is where the band shines and its current incarnation may be the best version yet. Borrowing a phrase from Duke Ellington: They rock madly!

For this live streaming concert, they pulled out the stops for the clubs they were scheduled to perform at on tour and the fans they would have performed for. In an interesting twist on the concert business model, each venue where they were slated to perform received 20% of every ticket sold to the Guided by Voices World Tour 2020 livestream.

 

Buying my ticket was as great an experience as one could imagine given the circumstances. The band was in fine form, playing on a large soundstage at a venue called The Brightside in Dayton, Ohio which offered band members proper social distancing, access to good lighting, and professional sound reinforcement. For a group that thrives on its audiences, pulling off a show like this must have been challenging, yet there was no shortage of musical energy as the band simply drove on from one song to the next for about two and a half hours.

 

Fan favorites were abundant, including “Chasing Heather Crazy,” “Cut Out Witch,” “Motor Away,” “Echoes Myron,” “I Am a Scientist,” “The Best of Jill Hives,” and “I Am a Tree.” They were no doubt focused on this year’s release, Surrender Your Poppy Field, offering up at least 10 of that album’s 15 tracks. There were also some rarities, and I suspect there were new songs from the upcoming album Mirrored Aztec. I’m still taking in the 52-song set list!

 

One benefit of a show like this is the band could focus on performing without the pressures of a packed house, quirky sound systems, and inadequate monitoring. This was never more evident than during the beautiful bridge to “Glad Girls,” where all the band members harmonized splendidly. Their five-part harmonies on “Teenage FBI” and “The Goldheart Mountaintop

Queen Directory” were similarly impressive. These details can get overlooked in a traditional concert setting.

 

Watching the Guided by Voices World Tour 2020 livestream was in many ways like being a fly on the wall for a concert-tour dress rehearsal. That they chose to share this with their fans is wonderful thing.

 

Production-wise, the livestream was crafted to a quite high standard. 

While they likely couldn’t have multiple camera people in the facility and on stage, they still had multiple camera angles (seven, in fact). I suspect they used GoPro-type cameras set up strategically around the stage, intercut to keep the action interesting and exciting.

 

Image quality was really very nice even at only 720p resolution, with a warm blue hue that allowed the stage lights to illuminate the band without much distraction (even the band members were dressed in muted blues, which streamed well without many artifacts). The audio was 24-bit / 44.1 kHz, so all things considered the sound was pretty great for a hard-rocking band firing with all cylinders on—drums, bass, two electric guitars in all their fiery Marshall-amped glory!

 

If I had a criticism of this virtual concert experience it would be to add some level of interactivity so fans could offer feedback to the band. At minimum, it would be nice if you could text in requests and such. Fortunately during the show, many fans (myself included) congregated on the band’s Facebook page, sharing the buzz about the event and its evolving set list, which was fun.

 

As I mentioned, the band recently started a wonderful subscription series, which I just joined via their website. Called “Hot Freaks” (named for a classic GBV song), for $100 you get all manner of live concerts, unreleased demos, previews for upcoming records, special video clips, and other special goodies. On the day after I joined, they sent me about a dozen emails with download links to catch me up on the program. I’m already overwhelmed—in a good way—and this is just the start of a year-long subscription.

 

So, yes, this is how you keep the music flowing even when the chips appear down, folks. Guided by Voices World Tour 2020 will continue to be streaming for the next several days, so if you are a fan or simply curious, it is a good deal. You’ll be supporting a great American rock band and you’ll get a download of the concert audio to enjoy as well.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound & Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

As a Hall & Oates and Live from Daryl’s House band member and a multi-instrumentalist who frequently takes his solo act on tour, Eliot Lewis suddenly found himself with nowhere to perform when the world came to a hard stop in March. Like many musicians, he soon embraced livestreaming as a virtual alternative. But, unlike many musicians, he decided to offer his fans a more satisfying experience by bringing his streams as close to the level of studio recording as possible—a laudable effort that deserved a closer look.

—Michael Gaughn

How many Facebook livestreams have you done over the past couple of months?

I’ve been doing them once a week on Wednesday. so it would probably be around eight so far. A lot of people are doing them almost every day—three or four a week. I wanted to make them a little more special than that. Quality over quantity.

 

What are you doing to mix it up a little?

The cool thing about doing a livestream, and one of the reasons so many of us musicians have turned to them, is that it gives us something to focus on. Like with any live show, I work up new arrangements for songs, I’ll take requests. I write my own music. Some weeks I’ll do full backing tracks where it can have all the instrumentation around me, and then other weeks I’ll break it down to an acoustic show.

 

Also, because I’m a multi-instrumentalist, I do something where I’m playing guitar and singing, and I’m also playing drums with my feet. It’s an electronic drum kit I’ve come up with and programmed so everything can be live and spontaneous. I can 

change from one thing to the other on the drop of a dime.

 

On one of your streams, someone asked about the drums and I thought you were joking when you responded that you were playing them with your feet.

There are a few blues guys who will play steel, string, and acoustic guitar, and also play these snare 

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

drums or a kick drum, and it’s very, very basic. I expanded that idea into my musical universe and came up with a way of doing it with drum samples and trigger pads. They’re electronic trigger pads but with real heads on them and real kick pedals so it feels like I’m playing a real bass drum. I’ve programmed it where I can have a kick and a snare I can change per song. If I want to do a ballad, I can have a softer sound. I’ve programmed a crash cymbal where I’m hitting the kick drum at a higher velocity.

 

If I’m not mistaken, you perform most or all of the parts on your solo albums.

Yeah, everything is done by me. The only thing I’ll add is some extra background vocals from people.

 

So you’d already had a lot of practice before you jumped into streaming.

Well, yeah, since I was 10 years old. So that’s a few years.

 

Given how many people are relying on performance online now, it seems like it’s on a lot of musicians’ shoulders to move beyond iPhones in portrait mode. Have you seen other people trying to up the quality of their performances or 

trying to innovate a little with how they’re presenting?

When people started to focus on livestreams back in March, most of them were just using an iPhone, which there’s nothing wrong with that. But a lot of them were just using the built-in microphone and, depending on the internet connection or their data streaming, the sound could be really not good. And a lot were using the selfie side of the camera, which would flip the image and make a right-handed player look like they were playing lefty. And often the lighting wasn’t great.

 

So I just thought, “If I’m going to do this, I want to do it properly.” I literally started with my iPhone as well—iPhone 10, which has got a really decent camera on it. But instead of using the selfie one, I realized it would be much better to use the back-facing camera, which has higher resolution.

 

And I didn’t want to rely on the audio from the phone. I have a Yamaha mixer that’s iOS compatible, so I run everything directly and try to make it a really quality experience. I’m upgrading everything as we speak. I’ve got a GoPro Hero 8.

I also have a pretty good quality Panasonic Lumix DSLR camera with a nice Zeiss lens, which I’m incorporating for some of the stuff.

 

There’s a bit of a learning curve in going from a basic livestream to actually shooting video with proper studio lighting and that. But I had a little bit of an edge because I do a lot of photography to start with.

 

Acoustically, it looks like you’re miking pretty closely so the room isn’t having a lot of influence.

You’re absolutely right. I’m in an apartment, so I don’t have a ton of space. I’ve got full carpeting and I have some sound treatment I have up just for recording purposes, so it’s pretty dry. But I can control that with a little reverb or compression in my mixer as I’m doing it. It definitely is more studio-like than some of the stuff on livestreams where you hear a ton of the room, which can be distracting, obviously.

 

Were you doing professional recording in that space before all this happened?

Yeah. I’m such a self-sufficient musician—I write and record everything myself—so wherever I live, I end up setting up a home studio. I’ve been doing it all of my life since way back with multitrack cassette players. I don’t need a ton of room. I’m sort of a minimalist in that way. Everything I do in my apartment is record-studio quality, so that just transfers right over to the stuff I’ve been doing in the livestreams.

Was Live from Daryl’s House another form of preparation for all this?

Absolutely. I’ve been very, very fortunate because I’m the only musician, aside from Daryl, who’s been on every episode, all 90 of them. So that undoubtedly helped me with my own little livestreams and video performances, although the level is 

completely different. We started Live from Daryl’s House with a very small, very meager production and then it grew very quickly.

 

Are there any specific streams or videos you’ve seen lately you could point to as particularly good or interesting examples?

There are. Obviously, some of the artists have their pick of good production. I’ve seen stuff Keith Urban is doing, and Grace Potter, and, oh God, Allen Stone. Allen did Live from Daryl’s House and he was deep into video to begin with. So when he needed to do livestreaming, it was really properly done. I think he’s probably using OBS and multiple high-def cameras. So he’s really got it going on.

 

A good friend of mine, a great guitar player named Johnny A, is doing a morning livestream on Facebook five days a week. He’s not so much concerned with the video quality. But one of the positive things is that he’s getting a lot more people to interact with him. So sometimes it’s not all about the quality; it’s really about the content and how you present yourself and what you’re saying and who you get involved.

 

You have a new video out inspired by the current situation. Is there anything about its genesis you’d like to talk about?

I happened to be separated from somebody I love during the start of 

Musician Eliot Lewis on Doing Livestreams Right

this. The last physical show I did was at Madison Square Garden with Hall and Oates, and that was late February. I was out in the audience with her and friends and it was only two or three weeks later that New York just blew up. So long story short, she went back into the healthcare system so I haven’t seen her in a couple of months. That’s really where that song came about. I thought it’s something a lot of people can relate to because a lot of them have been separated from their children or from their parents in nursing homes.

Do you see all of this permanently changing how musicians are going to be thinking about performance?

I do. One of the positive aspects is that because these streams are live, musicians are going to become more conscious of upping their performance game. Since you can have tens of thousands of people getting onto your livestreams, you’ve got to make sure you’re prepared and your performance is right, because you can’t go back and fix stuff. That takes us back to more of the golden era of record-making and music-making where it was all performance. People didn’t have Pro Tools and digital workstations to cut and paste and fix and auto tune things.

 

And I think that when we do get back to a more normal situation where we can play live again, a lot of us are going to incorporate what we’ve been doing now. I know I will, because I really enjoy this part of it. It’s forced me to dive even further into livestreaming and video, and I’m learning a lot through the process.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.