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Thursday, 27 May 2010

Testing the Audience

We just got back from Las Vegas. It's a long drive through the desert, with nothing but country music on the radio. If you're ever thinking about it, you have been warned.

The last time we did the trip was around 1980, and that was by Greyhound bus. Back then it was essentially still '50s Ratpack and Mafia-style Vegas, where a couple of kids with backpacks could have a cheap time with inexpensive buffets and free champagne. Now it's like they attach a suction pump to your wallet as you arrive, and it keeps on draining money until you finally pull free. But we wouldn't have missed it.

We got a good deal on a suite in the Palazzo, right on the Strip. Eight floors down and right across the street, two full-sized pirate ships did battle every hour and one of them sank, bobbing back up at the end of the show like the only decent scene in Raise the Titanic. There were working gondolas floating through our hotel's shopping plaza and a volcano in front of the Mirage along the way. Every hotel is like an indoor city, and each has a theme. In one afternoon we walked through crazed fantasy reproductions of Venice, Paris, Ancient Rome and, erm, Atlantis, which I suspect some Americans believe is as real as all the other places. One night we went off the strip to the Rio (theme: 70s Blackpool acid flashback) for Penn and Teller's show. Penn and Teller have a residence there, with the theatre named after them... it was a bare-bones show with no sets, just a jazz piano player and one performing assistant, but we had great seats and saw some neat stuff.

A couple of days of it were enough... at one point I found myself sitting eight floors up with a direct view down on all the madness, communicating with home in real time and running off show reservations on the in-room printer. On one of the suite's three huge flatscreen TVs, one of a dozen rolling news channels was telling of how robots were working to cap an oil well amidst ecological disaster along the coast of Lousiana. Down below my floor-to-ceiling window was a street scene that could have been lifted from Harry Harrison's Make Room, Make Room, while behind the hotel fantasy facades stretched a Ballardian wasteland of concrete, desert lots, and high speed roads. It was as if every SF novel I ever read had come true all at once and in the same place... in the foyer the next morning I even saw a bunch of service people in fatigues and with kitbags checking out to return to duty, with a sense of dislocation straight out of The Forever War.

Note that I say novels, and not movies. Much of the SF literature I was reading decades ago, some of it written decades before that, still stands as an effective imagining of the potential variety of the human context. It wasn't predictive, nor did it ever purport to be. It was exploratory and prophetic, and therein lay the joy of being a science fiction reader; SF as a magnificent rummage-chest of thought-out possibilities.

Whereas the movies did something different. It's the difference between actual science fiction and the theme park ride that is sci-fi. Looking at them now, you can see how the movies reflected their time without ever really moving out of it. There's nothing more dated than a sci-fi movie's idea of futuristic fashion.

But there was a serious purpose to the trip, as well. I went to a demonstration of 3D television, and later spoke to the guy in charge of one of the audience testing centres on the Las Vegas strip. There are two such centres in town, and two more in Florida; the idea is that both locations offer a wide cross-section of the American population (I might also say that I saw more seriously unhealthy people in the first six hours in Vegas than in my first six months in Los Angeles.)

They get people in off the strip, record their reactions during the screening of a show, and ask them a series of detailed questions afterwards. The raw data goes to the networks and the studios. Eleventh Hour was tested here, with Rufus Sewell delivering one of the highest-ever scores of a new series lead. When the results were in, the pilot was recut to remove Rachel's businesslike motel seduction of a local detective; the test audience said they liked the character and didn't want to see or hear anything bad about her.

And did the demonstration change my opinion of 3D television? The technology certainly worked, and worked well, in that the image was diamond-sharp and had depth. As long as you wore the glasses and didn't tilt your head or move from the couch. Therein, I think, lies the genuine drawback. 3D television is like stereo radio. It's OK to have it if it's no extra trouble.

5 comments:

Stan said...

A strange coincidence - my missus took me on a birthday surprise trip to Las Vegas the week before last. Only four days but quite enough time there as I'd go loony if I had to be around slot machines for any more time (even the poxy airport lounge has them!).

We were in the MGM Grand and they were doing test screenings there - we did have a couple of tickets given to us but we didn't get around to going. The amount of US telly that my wife watches, maybe we should have!

The strip really is like a giant theme park for adults and, before we went, people who'd been years ago were telling us that there are $1 buffets in all the hotels, and free drinks while gambling...well, it's not quite like that anymore. It's expensive anyway but by the time you add tax and flaming tips for the world and his wife, we were paying more than we do in London.

Having said that, it really was something to see. You just can't convey the over-the-topness of it all to people - even with pictures.

Stephen Gallagher said...

These days, the only thing a dollar will buy you is a bottle of cold water from a street vendor's ice chest!

They test TV shows in both the Grand and, I think, the Bally.

kygal said...

Been to Vegas many times...crazy place! We fans miss Eleventh Hour and continue to show support and interest in the series. Rufus Sewell is an amazing actor. He seems to always be working. With his talent, very surprised he does not get more leading actor type respect in Hollywood. Maybe he does and is not interested. Smart move to pick him for EH!

Lu said...

What can I say? I miss Eleventh Hour, I love Rufus Sewell and I'm glad that scene with Marley and the detective was cut because it had nothing to do with the plot.

I'd love to go to a test screening. I think I'd really help ;)

By the way, I finally got the Annual World's best SF 1978 book and I can't wait to read Jefty is five, the story you recommended.

Stephen Gallagher said...

Hope it doesn't disappoint!