Monday, April 19, 2010

Insomnia? May I recommend Nova

I've had trouble sleeping most of my life. And when I have fallen asleep it is not always in the most appropriate setting.  I have drifted off while listing to a director give me notes after rehearsal (he didn't notice thanks to one of my fellow actors responding), in mid sentence as I sit at a restaurant eating, while sitting on a toilet and while cooking.  This last one was before I actually turned on the stove but still...dicey.  After I had my heart attack I was told I had to sleep with some consistency or I would..ah what was the word the Cardiologist used...oh yeah...die.

Now with a combination of a prescription and a good book, I can turn my brain off and fall asleep.  But sometimes I need a little more encouragement to bring me to the repose I so desire.  I choose not to turn to more drugs but instead a rather curious way to put myself in sweet slumber. I turn on an episode of Nova.

But how can that be you might ask?  Nova is one of the finest representations of non-fictional or reality television show ever produced anywhere. I unequivocally agree. The subject matter is always informative, timely yet timeless and so beautifully photographed that on a large HD screen it can take your breath away.  The content is presented in a well thought out and meticulous manner with attention to detail and accuracy that is unmatched. The viewer can follow seemingly incomprehensible, complex issues in a way that are accessible to even the most impenetrable among us.  They take you to another world the same way a great book can.  The one thing they don't do is intrude with off the subject commercials during the presentation. And that's when the miraculous happens.  I believe as the show continues uninterrupted, somewhere I find the portal to drift off to dreamland.  

The lack of commercials is the key most certainly.  Did you ever notice that the commercial blocks (especially on FOX!!!!!) are LOUD.  Sometimes much LOUDER and that's saying something if you're watching something like 24. You may dismiss it but its true.  All broadcast entities that have advertisement have the volume turned up to "11" during these breaks.  Any show, no matter what the genre, during the show's content, will have moments of stasis and some quiet however brief.  A 21st century commercial block has a thirtieth of a second between each ad, announcement or promo.  It is this random series of disturbances that I believe keeps me awake.  Even when its recorded and I'm whizzing past these pods of information, it's still a break and  my mind and body are engaged.  How can you sleep when you're blasted with, "ANIMATION DOMINATION!!!!! "

Nothing like that ever happens when I'm watching Nova.  Not even when the subject concerns CERN and its massive particle accelerator.  When watching Nova I am a passive participant and I have only to sit back and do nothing.  I relax and allow myself to be completely absorbed.  Put me in a bed with lots of pillows propping me up and securing my head and the mix is as effective as any prescription non-addicting (yeah right) sedative. If I watch it live it happens around 822pm and I make certain that the TV turns off before the show is over. If I do wake up I'm still embraced in that state of grace which assures a quick and certain return to blissful sleep.

This phenomenon started years ago with the hypnotic voice of George Page on Nature and the late Carl Sagan when he narrated his seminal series Cosmos.  About the third time he would repeat the phrase "Billions and billions of star stuff" I was snoring on the couch before the second "B".  I have never been able to remain conscious for a Nature episode that George Page has narrated.  Even the one on dogs.  

I now record Nova, Nature, Masterpiece Theatre etc. and when I can't sleep I find one of them on my "Do Not Delete" list, hit the play icon and they are my calming voice.  Sometimes they are such great shows I do become fully engaged and don't fall asleep until it's over (I'm finding this happening more and more with Jane Austen presentations [could be the estrogen]) but even then I am as a consequence in a serene state of mind.  My mind is thinking about the great show and it questions and issues and not fretting about all the myriad of things that are swirling in my head as I come to the end of a day. Instead I can drift off with images of the elusive Higgs particle, a skeletal representation of a cheetah and how they are built a certain way that enables them to catch the impala or what's up with Mr. Darcy?  Really?

Maybe it's just me and it won't work for you.  But I thought I would share with you this modality to unconsciousness.  Not only do I sleep but I believe I'm more informed on many subjects that have seemingly no consequence in my life.  But then again, you never know having the knowledge that we now know that 95% of the universe of made up of mostly dark energy and  some dark matter and we don't know what that is exactly nor have we really ever seen it, could help me when I'm doing say... my taxes.  It's nice to know that even the smartest and most learned people don't know things.  

So thank you PBS and viewers like you and me occasionally that bring such high quality shows that challenge my intellect (which is easy to do) and bring rest to this weary soul.  Ah Sleep.  The Sweet Escape (Gwen Stefani not withstanding).


David said...

Not sure how the PBS brass would feel about your promotion of some of their flagship shows for producing somnolency :-) I acknowledge that the George Page-style of narration delivery can be a great sleep-inducer when one is already tired...zzzzzz...

Interestingly, while commercials in virtually all media come across as louder than the programs, it might surprise everyone to learn that on an audio level meter they aren't louder at all. The difference is an APPARENT loudness increase caused by the audio of commercials being much more "compressed" when mixed. A super-loud commercial has probably been mixed with an 8:1 or more compression ratio, meaning that the softest material is amplified 8 times as much as the material that's already loud. Basically the meter is pinned in the red the whole of the commercial. Most pop music is mixed this way as well.

A TV show is usually mixed with dialogue compression at about a 3 or 4:1 ratio at most (to get the dialogue over the background noise in a house), and a feature film is often 2:1 or less. It's the huge difference in mixing approaches that make commercials so IN YOUR FACE.

David said...

Somehow I don't think PBS wants to know about this. But I know what you mean about George Page's smooth voice and it's somnific effect.

Interestingly, if you were to look at the audio from your TV or radio on an audio level meter you would find that the commercials are no louder than the loudest moments in the program. What makes the commercials so much more in-your-face is that they have had their dynamic range so dramatically compressed that they start out with the meter needle "pinned" in the red and it just stays there - the natural loud and soft of human speech has been distorted by compression ratios as high as 10:1 so that there is only loud and nothing else. In comparison, the compression used when mixing a radio or TV show or movie is more like 2:1, which actually sounds fairly natural while keeping the softest parts of speech above the background noise level in a living room or movie theater (2:1 means the quieter material is amplified twice as much as the loudest - purely natural amplification would be 1:1; your stereo system amplifies at 1:1).