(Mostly Complete Draft)

This is what PREVIEW THEATER is all about.

Back in a time…when the internet was only for real geeks…

Siskel & Ebert, circa 1990

Siskel & Ebert, circa 1990

There were a number of movie review programs, the most popular being At the Movies hosted by well know, and well respected journalist, based in Chicago, Siskel and Ebert. I had an issue with all these programs. I didn’t want to be told by two white guys in Chicago what was worth seeing at the theater. I didn’t care about thumbs up or down – that was their opinion. I wanted to make up my own. So, I created PREVIEW THEATER – Previews! Not Reviews.

The program pilot was first broadcast on three stations in the Mid-Atlantic, Washington DC, Baltimore, MD, and Virginia. We tested 10 episodes premiering late on Thursday nights in September 1992. It succeeded and all three stations wanted more. PREVIEW THEATER needed a lot of work to make it a more compelling program. After a graphic redesign, a different writing approach, and hiring a television syndicator, the program officially launched in March 1994. There were eventually 218 weekly episodes (just over 4 years) broadcast in 111 US cities and 3 countries in the Middle East (that’s right – and that’s a whole other story)

There is, however, a number of backstories to PREVIEW THEATER
Always one to push the boundaries of sensibility and technology, I was determined not to put PREVIEW THEATER together in a traditional way. That way included loads of tape machines, and edit controllers, and switchers (aka vision mixers) to pull the whole thing together – all in a very linear fashion. This required calculating what clip, or graphic or sound would be where down to a 30th of a second – the process is called “back timing”, and I was rotten at math, and dyslexic, and subsequently rotten at back timing. If you miscalculated, you would have to go back and re-assemble the program in realtime from the point you made a mistake, and that took a whole lot of time.

Around mid 1992, the concept of non-linear editing was becoming a reality, and there were a few affordable solutions on the market that would work well for PREVIEW THEATERs weekly delivery. And, in the process meet another like-minded enthusiast about this new way of assembling a television program.

The first one used was a system called EditDV. With only two tape machines controlled by a back box, and an Apple Mac IIcx, the program could be off lined – a brand new concept at the time – and then perform an on-line to create the final program. First you would digitize the video to a postage stamp size low-ish quality clip to a hard drive. This was done at the post production facility – in this case Creative Concepts in New York City. They had the broadcast tape machines required. I would take the hard drive home to access the clips in part of the application that allowed you to edit, and re-edit to your hearts content – or more importantly back time with ease and not have to calculate anything, or start over. It was a miracle! You could also add some simple graphics prepared in Photoshop. This part of the process didn’t create the final product, but a representation of what it should be. The process of creating an offline was revolutionary – mostly because of the time and money it saved.

Sony BVU-800 U-matic VTR

Sony BVU-800 U-matic VTR

Once the offline was complete, I took the file (actually a kind of EDL) and the graphics back to the post house. With the two tape machines – in this case Sony BVU-800s – the black box controlled by the computer would prompt you to insert one source tape or another and copy it into the correct position in time on the recording machine. All the while pulling up the graphics and overlaying them based on the offline I did at home. It took about 25 minutes to put the half-hour episode together and saved huge amounts of time at the post house, and thus literally thousands of dollars.

In late 1991, I also used a piece of software from a very small company called CoSA – The Company of Science and Art, based in Providence and consisting of Brown grads mostly named Dave. They wrote a couple of applications. One they were not yet championing is called After Effects. A few of us in the industry saw demos and knew how disruptive it was going to be. It was remarkable.

The Grass Valley Kadenza was the center point of the graphics department in Barcelona. This Kadenza configuration cost about $1m.

I could sit at home on my Mac and create a complicated layered animation all costing a few thousand dollars in hardware, where the very summer before I would use gear literally worth millions (doing graphic for NBC coverage of the Barcelona Olympics), and requiring a huge infrastructure, to do the same thing I was then able to do at home in my pajamas. Of course, at the time, you still needed additional hardware to get the rendered files out of the Mac.

During the early development of PREVIEW THEATER, I worked with an equally enthusiastic fellow named Perry Lawrence. He was an editor at Creative Concepts. We both saw the writing on the wall that the very large and very expensive traditional post-production facilities industry – both to run and to hire – was ready for disruption. In late 1992, Perry and I started Edgeworx in the living room of his apartment on lower Broadway. By Thanksgiving (late November) we moved into our first office on Franklin St. In Soho. By then we had acquired a Media 100 editing system and that’s the system we assembled PREVIEW THEATER on. All non-linear, all digital (except the source and the delivery output). PREVIEW THEATER was likely the first weekly broadcast series to be delivered straight out of the non-linear editing (NLE) system.
Edgeworx grew a great deal over the years using Avid, Final Cut Pro, the workhorse swiss army knife of effects, After Effects, and 3D Studio Max in the process establishing the desktop based post-production workflow now the de facto standard.

For the first year or so of PREVIEW THEATER the program was played out of the NLE to a few 3/4” U-Matic and Betacam SP tape decks. Those tapes were then Fed Ex’d to the syndicating stations. As stations were added, it quickly became impractical to make all the dubs, and pay for shipping. It was time to think big – sky high, if you will. We enlisted the most cost effective satellite distribution service we could find. For $300, we sent only one tape out to Burbank to be fed to affiliates on Thursdays at 13:45 to 14:15 UTC , Galaxy 4; Transponder 5. Stereo Audio 6.2L and 6.8R
It was up to the stations to record the program on time. If they missed it, we would FedEx a tape out for $50. That only happened a few times.

It might be interesting to note most of the stations that carried PREVIEW THEATER were also CBS affiliates. Most stations ran the program 12m ET / 11pm CT on Thursday nights – most likely after a MASH rerun. CBS did not have late night programming like Letterman at the time. It ran a few more times over the weekend as scheduled, or as filler around sports programming.

Going Global
The syndicator, Mampre Media, received an interesting syndication request – the Middle East. A Middle East syndicator, Intermedia, requested to carry PREVIEW THEATER episodes on satellite channels in 3 countries. We though it was odd too. We learned, apparently, those folks who could, would watch PREVIEW THEATER to get an idea of what was generally playing. They would get in their jets and go to Paris, or Berlin, or London and watch movies as part of their weekend getaways. Since we had access to the European release schedules, we produced a version more suited to the audience.

Spin Offs
There were two spin offs of PREVIEW THEATER, both on this fancy new thing called the internet. The first was FAMILY VIDEO PREVIEW and was produced for what was then known as women.com. The other a KID VIDEO PREVIEW which was produced by Trillian, and featured a way for parents to see a bit about the videos their kids were asking about, or to consider getting for them. It was a bit early for most consumers to be able to have enough bandwidth – most were still on dial-up – and computer power to play video clips. This was a decade before YouTube and the now commonplace occurrence of video on the internet. Both managed to stay around a few years, and squeak though the dot-bomb days of 1999 – 2000.

The End
PREVIEW THEATER on TV was eventually done in by the then new phenomenon of infomercials. We were lucky, for a while, since most CBS stations would not air infomercials. That kind of programming was for the independent stations. As most all stations soon realized, it was easier to program infomercials. They made more revenue because infomercial producers were willing to pay for the time slot, and it eliminated the need for a late night ad sales staff. It was a win-win for the station. As PREVIEW THEATER was barter programming (we owned a few commercial slots, the station sold the rest), stations now wanted PREVIEW THEATER to pay up too. it became obvious PREVIEW THEATER’s days were numbered. Moving the program to the internet was considered, but not really practical at the time.
218 episodes later PREVIEW THEATER was last broadcast on April 30, 1998.

So from March 2014 for 4 years, enjoy watching PREVIEW THEATER and kid your folks about the lame and not so lame movies they used to go see at the theater, or watched on home video.

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