TV Stardom on $20 a Day December 11, 2005 By ROBERT MACKEY
AMANDA CONGDON is a big star on really small screens - like the 4½- inch window she appears in on computer monitors every weekday morning or the 2½ inches she has to work with on the new video iPod. Ms. Congdon, you see, is the anchor of a daily, three-minute, mock TV news report shot on a camcorder, edited on a laptop and posted on a blog called Rocketboom, which now reaches more than 100,000 fans a day.
In terms of subject matter, Rocketboom is actually quite a standard - one might even say traditional - Web log: Ms. Congdon comments on intriguing items she, and the site's producer, Andrew Baron, have found on the Web, and includes links to them which appear just below clear, smooth-playing video. The items tend to be developments in Internet culture (robots and flash mobs, say, or flash mobs of robots) with a sprinkling of left-leaning political commentary (Ms. Congdon announced the posting of Representative Tom DeLay's mug shot while wearing a party hat and blowing a noisemaker) and samples of Web video from around the world.
What makes Rocketboom so different from most of the other video blogs, or vlogs, that have popped up in the last year or so is that the daily episodes are consistently entertaining. With Mr. Baron, 35, the designer who created the site and films the episodes, Ms. Congdon, 24, has fashioned a quirky, charming persona, with an inventive take on the news that is closer in spirit to Letterman than CNN.
The fact that she is an attractive young woman probably doesn't hurt either. Regular visitors to the site tend to check in at the start of each workday, soon after new episodes are posted from the Rocketboom production studio - also known as Mr. Baron's one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. "They won't always like it. It won't always be their cup of tea," Ms. Congdon said, "but they know a lot of times they will and, regardless, I'm not like screaming at them or telling them what to do. I'm kind of just like 'Hey, I'm here - this is what I think is cool.' "
It's not just cool, though, it's prescient. The vlog has been up and running for 14 months, but it's only in the last two that Web video has become new media's favorite new medium - since Apple Computer's iTunes online store began stocking vlogs, calling them video podcasts and making it easy to download them for free viewing on the new iPods. In fact, the day Steve Jobs, Apple's chief executive, introduced the video iPod to developers, he showed a playlist of video podcasts on his computer. Rocketboom was at the top.
In case you're wondering, it has occurred to Mr. Baron and Ms. Congdon that they just might be sitting on a gold mine. At a cost of about $20 an episode, they reach an audience that some days is roughly comparable in size to that of, say, CNN's late, unlamented "Crossfire" political debate show. They have no background in business, but Jeff Jarvis, who tracks developments in technology and culture on his blog, BuzzMachine.com (and who has served as a consultant to The New York Times on Web matters), pointed out to them that they might be able to charge $8,000 for an interactive ad at the end of the show, which would bring in about $2 million annually.
The financial opportunity here has occurred to others, too. TiVo, which can now be used to watch Web video on home television sets, just signed a deal to list Rocketboom in the TiVo directory - making it as easy to record as conventional television programs like "60 Minutes" and "Monday Night Football." Giving up no creative control, Ms. Congdon and Mr. Baron will get 50 percent of the revenue from ads sold by TiVo to appear before and after their newscast, and their show will gain access to more than 300,000 TV sets connected to those new TiVo boxes. (That won't include Mr. Baron, though, since he gave up watching television years ago, and doesn't even own a set. He briefly considered buying one this year, but the thought passed. "I guess I'm going to hold out," he said.)
THE rapid expansion in the number of vlogs and Web sites offering video podcasts strongly suggests how bored viewers are getting with standard commercial TV: a growing number of them are willing to seek out alternatives online, or just create one themselves. As recently as a year ago there were fewer than two dozen active vlogs. In mid-October, just after Mr. Jobs name-checked Rocketboom, and Apple added the category of "Video Podcast" to the default menu of the new iPod, the site Vlogmap.org showed 415 vlogs worldwide. A month later Mefeedia.com, a site that allows users to watch and subscribe to vlogs, had 1,100 sites in its directory. Two weeks after that Mefeedia boasted of "2,017 vlogs and counting." Rocketboom includes reports from vloggers both near (Boston) and far (Prague), with regular contributors based in Los Angeles, Minneapolis and "the German-speaking part of Europe."
Many of the world's other vlogs are closer in form to diaries or home movies - with all the tedium that can imply. Still, some have their fans, such as the filmmaker Ross McElwee, whose personal documentaries, including "Sherman's March," have elevated the home movie into a serious art form. "Most of the vlogs are quite boring," he said recently by e-mail, "but now and then there is one that for some reason seems to have something special." Mr. McElwee cited one called Mom's Brag Vlog that documents events like trick-or-treating at the mall and a spider spinning a web outside a family's house. "It's so mundane and down-to-earth that it's charming," he said, "in small doses."
On most vlogs, that's the only dose available. The average video runs no longer than a pop song and, as with blogs, it's easy to dip in to and back out of any site that fails to hold your interest. In the right hands, vlogs can become microdocumentaries of surprising beauty, wit and intelligence. The diarist Michael Verdi, for instance, uses his camcorder to deliver improvised monologues that Mr. McElwee said "celebrate the frustrating banality" of those in-between moments, waiting for lights to turn green or planes to take off, that would be edited out of most biographies. One reviewer on Mefeedia wrote, "Verdi is a household name amongst vloggers."
Rocketboom's Minneapolis correspondent, Chuck Olsen, profiles other people on his main site, Minnesota Stories, but also maintains a video diary called Secret Vlog Injection. One post there uses video that Mr. Olsen shot without permission during an indie-rock concert at a local club. The result records not only a great performance by the band but also Mr. Olsen's argument with the club's manager, who tried to confiscate his camera. The story evolves into a smart, funny discussion of copyright issues and the philosophical difference between the world-views of the vloggers and traditional media companies. "There's no economic motive," Mr. Olsen says in titles that appear on the screen like a news crawl, noting that the viewer is not being charged for the video. "The point is to capture, and share, fantastic, fleeting moments."
The twist is that Mr. Olsen used his stolen images to make what might be one of the best music videos of the year, which could easily have been shown on MTV as an advertisement for the band. But not all vloggers are interested in making video that could be televised.
Charlene Rule, who makes artful short pieces that appear on her vlog, Scratch Video (and have been shown at the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village), uses fragments of her own life - like parts of a surprisingly long phone conversation with a wrong number, or a few seconds with a dress-maker helping her to "make breasts" for the bridesmaid's outfit she wore to a friend's wedding.
She takes a different approach from those vloggers who, she said, "mimic TV." Instead, she points to an ideal of personal filmmaking advocated by the director François Truffaut nearly 50 years before vlogs were invented (which she quotes on her site): "The film of tomorrow" he wrote in 1957, "will be even more personal than an individual and autobiographical novel, like a confession, or a diary. The young filmmakers will express themselves in the first person and will relate what has happened to them: it may be the story of their first love or their most recent; of their political awakening. ... The film of tomorrow will resemble the person who made it, and the number of spectators will be proportional to the number of friends the director has."
The amount of spare time they have may also be a factor. "One of the vlogs I stumbled upon recently," said Mr. McElwee, who also teaches documentary film at Harvard, "said 'If you have a few hours to kill, check out my photo blog that accompanies this vlog' - but it seems like years since I've 'had a few hours to kill.' "
But the new technology of podcasting solves that problem. Just as videocassette recorders first made it possible to watch television shows when you wanted rather than when they were broadcast, podcasting allows you to have shows (audio or video) sent directly to your computer, portable players or TiVo box for viewing at your leisure.
A site like Ms. Rule's Scratch Video, which has about 8,000 subscribers, suggests that it may soon be possible for video producers to distribute their programs directly through the Internet - and possibly even make a living doing it, in much the same way novelists with small but loyal followings can build a career without ever cracking the best-seller list. Until now, both the television and film industries have been built on a model that requires producers to appeal to millions of people or be considered failures. If Amanda Congdon at one end of the spectrum and Charlene Rule at the other continue to add viewers at the rate they're going, they and the best of the other vloggers might just provide a viable alternative to that lowest-common-denominator business model.
In other words, the revolution may just be vloggerized.