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European TV Surpasses U.S. TV

July 2004

I'll bet that you thought that I wasn't going to get a commentary in this month, didn't you? Fooled you again!

Obviously, I'm back from Europe in one piece, although the cold and wet weather in England certainly didn't help me to fight the cold that I was starting to get. And for those of you who were asking, I experienced absolutely no anti-Americanism in Europe. In fact, I got "Well, we're glad to have you here" with a smile on multiple occasions, which was a great feeling. If only the exchange rate was as kind as the people.

I did have one "Twilight Zone" moment in Madrid where I had to translate for a woman who did not speak English as her native language, but got angry when a worker at a Madrid cafeteria didn't speak English. After I translated her order, she said (in an accent indicative of a Mediterranean native), "I can't believe that these people don't speak English!"

With a smile (and raised eyebrows) I said, "Well, we are in Spain, after all."

She replied, "Yes, but in Turkey, Greece, and everywhere else, they speak English."

So, here I was barely able to speak Spanish myself, translating for a woman who did not speak English natively yet was complaining that the citizens of a non-English-speaking country were not speaking English. It was a very surreal experience.

Now, before you think that I'm turning this section into some kind of personal blog, I told you that story to tell you this one.

The Madrid translation incident was only one surreal incident that I ran into. I had two surprising incidents - one in London and another in Madrid - that were for the most part identical.

Anyone who lives in the U.S. (or has read my commentaries for a while) knows that the majority of TV stations are for whatever reason terrified of showing any kind of show in prime time in widescreen. There are of course some exceptions to that, such as "Enterprise" (which I call "Insultingly Politically Correct Star Trek Timeline Revisionism As Rewritten By An Egomaniacal Rick Berman"), "E.R.", and "The Sopranos". But for the most part, the only time that you'll see a movie in widescreen on U.S. televisions is if you switch to the few cable channels that actively support widescreen, like the Fox Movie Channel and Turner Classic Movies.

I was channel chasing in our B&B in Slough (just west of London), when suddenly I ran across 80's favorite "Top Gun" in widescreen. It wasn't the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It was obviously reformatted to fit widescreen TVs. Nonetheless, the BBC was showing a movie in prime time in some type of widescreen. (Yes, OAR would have been much better, but at least it was closer to the intended OAR than how American stations would have shown it.)

Sadly, many of my guests from the other side of the Pond have said that this has been the norm in the U.K. for many years. Maybe it's because the PAL specification has a higher resolution than NTSC so it can accommodate widescreen better. Maybe it's because companies like Philips, which was an early supporter of widescreen and DVD, is a European company and was therefore able to get its products into European homes earlier than into U.S. homes. Maybe it's because the U.S. does not have a strong droit moral clause like most of Europe does. Maybe it's because a lot of my fellow Americans are a bunch of spoiled brats who don't want to change from the 4:3 frame that they grew up with because *gasp* it's different! Maybe it's a combination of all of the above. I don't know.

I do know that it reminded me of how backwards the U.S. is when it comes to the rights of movie makers to have their movie shown in the method that they intended. (Don't even get me started on Clean Flicks or those "family friendly" DVD players!)

When I got to Spain (which was hot and sunny the whole time - a refreshing change from England's weather), I received even more of a widescreen shock. One night while channel chasing (again), I came across not one, not two, but three movies (one in English, one in native Spanish, and one dubbed in Spanish) that were shown in prime time in 2.35:1! Three separate channels were showing three separate widescreen movies at the same time in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratio!

Of course, the first thing that came to mind was loaded with expletives and therefore will not be repeated here; but, needless to say I questioned the sanity and intelligence not only of the U.S. network executives who fear the dreaded black bars but also of the Joe Six Packs who seem to have conniption fits whenever a 1.33:1 screen is not filled.

Oh, well.

By the way, a really good widescreen article has been posted on Slate by Bryan Curtis called "Why Widescreen Won". Sadly, I don't think that it really has won. There are some disturbing trends that are once again being spearheaded by Wal-Mart and others to reduce DVD to a cheap commodity that targets the cheap masses at the expense of movie makers. More on that next month.

Until next time...!