With all the amazing scientific advancements in the world, it's strange that so many everyday questions still go unanswered:
If the plane crashes, which flotation device should you grab: the life vest or the seat cushion?
Which game has the best probability: roulette, blackjack or craps?
Which car is really better for the environment and your wallet: the hybrid or a combustion engine car?
For television creators Marc Guggenheim and Jon Hotchkiss, the chance to answer those nagging everyday questions was irresistible, and they knew it would make great TV programming. Yet it was difficult to do effectively on a network show. Not only did the creators want top scientists who wouldn't back away from the answers, they also wanted to go after subjects that might offend network advertisers.
What emerged was This Vs. That, a web-based program that cuts out the big-money networks and goes straight for the truth."We don't have an agenda," said Hotchkiss, who came up with the concept behind the program. "We don't have an investment in whether the hybrid or combustion engine is better. It's not from a political point of view. We just want the real answer.
While This Vs. That employs comedy in every episode — it's hosted by three comedians — there is plenty of real science to back up their findings.
"When we talk about the science, we take the science incredibly seriously," Hotchkiss said. "The people we've worked with include Dr. Jason Steffen, an astro-physicist at the Fermi Lab in Chicago, who works on a grant from NASA studying dark matter in the universe. He's the one we worked with to conduct our airport boarding experiment. We did an experiment about what the best way is to remove stains from your carpet, so we found a scientist who has several patents involved with the actual creation of contemporary carpet. We did an experiment on whether propane or natural gas was hotter, and we worked with a chemistry professor from UCLA.
"We're working with people who are the top in their fields," he said, "and they've recognized that we can bring science to people in a way that is accessible and entertaining, yet really takes the science seriously."
Guggenheim, a comic book and TV writer who's worked on projects like the Green Lantern movie and shows like CSI and Eli Stone, said that because he's a self-described "geek," he couldn't resist the idea behind This Vs. That.
"It's about the science within arm's reach," said Guggenheim, . "I think part of being a geek is being fascinated by science. And part of being a geek is being inquisitive, and wondering about the world we live in. So it's very interesting to me, from a geek perspective."
Hotchkiss said he invested his own time and money into the idea behind This Vs. That because it's such a unique combination of entertainment and knowledge.
"If a car salesman says to me, 'This car will help save the environment, will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and will help save you money,' my gut reaction, because I'm sometimes cynical, is that what you're saying isn't completely true," he said. "But I don't have any way to back it up. So what I wanted was a place where I could figure those things out, where I wouldn't feel so dopey in a situation.
"What I wanted was the opportunity to equip people with knowledge," Hotchkiss said. "To say, 'we've spoken to experts, we've done experiments, and here's what's really true.' I thought that people would find that pleasing in an entertainment kind of way, and they'd also be smarter about which of these two things to do."
Plus, Guggenheim added, the show doesn't just explore the questions. It actually answers them.
"I think that's the most satisfying part of the show," he said. "Most reality shows that you see don't come to any conclusions, but this one really does bring it down to the bottom line and come up with an answer."
Hotchkiss said that's because the web-based format means he can come up with a winner, because there are no advertisers involved.
"For example, we did an experiment to determine which of two types of vehicles gets better gas mileage," he said. "That would be the first thing that a broadcast network would make us cut out of a show, because they don't want us to do anything to interfere with Toyota or Chevrolet, who make the cars we pitted against each other. At the end of that segment, one is going to be the winner, and the other one is not going to be the winner. And I think that information will interest people, but it's the kind of information a bigger network wouldn't do for fear of alienating their advertisers."
And just because the show is on the web doesn't mean it's a low quality production, Hotchkiss pointed out.
"We're making the kind of show that you would see in the History Channel or the Discovery Channel," Hotchkiss said. "The people I work with are the same people who work on those shows. The editors are the same, the producers are the same, the writers are the same, and the hosts also have other regular TV jobs. So all we've done is cut out the broadcast network who would homogenize the kind of program we're making."
"The nature of factual television means that the production value on the web is identical," Guggenheim said. "It would impossible to make the case that episodes of This Vs. That don't look just as good as something you would see on, say, the Discovery Channel. That's very exciting. A lot of people produce for the web. That's not new. What's great about this is that it's produced for the web, but it doesn't look like it."
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