Will Internet Kill The Cable Star

November 22, 2006
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One might call Josh Leo an Internet star. His video blog, found at joshleo.com, received two Vloggies at a Nov. 4 awards ceremony in San Francisco, taking home the Judges' Choice and Viewers' Choice prizes for Best Diary Vlog.

Some of the segments on his vlog are typical of the Internet video medium: "Ivory Soup Soufflé," an experiment involving a bar of soap and a microwave, and "Blow Torch," with Leo and a group of Upper Peninsula friends playing with combustibles. Others are more journalistic in nature, such as his piece on the Southeast Grand Rapids residents' protest at the WOOD TV-8 offices, his private tour of the Majestic Meijer Theatre, and coverage of the Grand Rapids Tomato Festival.

Practically speaking, there are three kinds of independent Internet video: short amateur clips of people hurting themselves, dancing or doing something generally foolish; clips from commercials, television or film; and the polished programming created by Leo and his contemporaries.

Whereas the first and second types represent the viral programming so unique to the Web, the third type — the aspiring citizen producer — has traditionally characterized another highly accessible medium: public access cable television.

"When I look at YouTube, I see some of the things I enjoyed about public access," said former GRTV station manager Chuck Peterson, referring to the popular online video portal. Peterson stepped down last month from the local public access station after 19 years. "The creativity of the amateur, looking at something in a new way, is just unsurpassed in public access."

Leo, a radio program producer for nonprofit Words of Hope Inc. in Grand Rapids, does not compare his programming to public access or YouTube. Most of the original content on YouTube, MySpace, Google Video and similar sites is viral video, he said, without a consistent audience or production schedule. His programming has continuity not unlike that of a cable newsmagazine, often referring to past episodes and recurring topics. In this respect, Leo's vlog is reminiscent of public access, delivered to its audience on a regular basis.

The vlog, however, employs a much different format. Segments are never longer than 10 minutes, usually much shorter. Also, his audience is a much narrower niche. Leo does not post his content on any of the portal sites, nor does he market his site. He began text blogging in 2002 to keep in touch with friends and family while living in Alaska, and started making the videos last year to show friends in Germany what life was like in Grand Rapids. To this day, those who regularly visit his site are friends and family.

"It's a function of the long-tail theory," Leo said. "At the beginning of the tail you have the massive TV audience. Then as the tail goes down, you find more niche markets."

In the Internet medium, an interested party will eventually find the content he or she is looking for — whether it be a fishing video, quick laugh or news from Grand Rapids — which is seldom the case on television, much less public access.

"If I turn on GRTV right now, more than likely there is a show on that I'm not interested in," said Peterson, "There will always be something on the Internet."

Whether Internet video will absorb would-be public access producers remains to be seen. Producers like Leo, with direct intention of reaching individuals across the planet, are not likely to be attracted to cable. The religious, community and government organizations that have carved out niches on public access would likely have little use for the global reach of the Internet.

"When the Internet first came out, there was talk about how some day that could be the thing that replaces public access television," said Peterson.

At public access station WKTV in Kentwood, that concern is minimal and usage continues to trend upward.

"This does remind me of the premise behind community television, this wonderful democratization of media," WKTV General Manager Tom Norton said. "But I think, if anything, it has inspired more people to use community television."

As people become more comfortable with technology, Norton reasoned, they are more likely to take advantage of more of the opportunities available to them. The producers he sees today have all handled at least consumer grade video equipment in the past, even high school students, who are increasingly utilizing the station.

Barb Pyle, executive director of MacMedia in the Macatawa/Holland area, reports similar usage growth. Concerning the Internet, she does not believe that high-speed access is prevalent enough for it to be truly considered the next stage of community access.

At GRTV, current station manager Joel Swierenga finds that perception particularly troublesome, especially with occasional legislative threats to its funding structure, including a bill currently on the floor in Lansing

"It's a different medium altogether, and one that in no way mirrors or reflects your local community," he explained. "It is not going to be something that destroys us or replaces us, it's just another alternative. Our concern is that with the growth of video online, people are saying, 'What's the point of public access?'"

GRTV actively uses the Internet for much of its programming, posting concerts organized by sister radio station WYCE-FM and other events online. Its parent organization, the CommunityMediaCenter, provides training on Internet usage and Web site development, along with site hosting for community groups.

"We operate on a model of tools, training and transmission," Swierenga said. "This is just another tool."

What the Internet has yet to produce is a recognizable star, and with the fickleness of the online masses, that might be a long time coming. Public access stations, on the other hand, quickly create local celebrities, and have even propelled personalities such as ESPN commentator Max Kellerman and former MTV personality and comedian Tom Green onto the national stage.

Peterson, the GRTV veteran, believes it is these highly creative, sometimes gonzo producers that will find the most appeal in the free-wheeling creativity of the Internet.

"I got involved in GRTV because I was looking for the notoriety," said Timothy Huffman, who with his wife, Sally, has produced 2.5 hours of public access content each week for the past nine years — the two-hour "The Elte Monte Billy Bob Show" and the half-hour "Tim's Area of Control," both on Friday night.

Huffman was attracted to public access by "The Great Daryl Nathan Show," a popular GRTV program in the mid-90s featuring Nathan's one-line songs, accompanied by the stock tracks of an electronic keyboard.

"I knew I could do a better job than that guy," Huffman said.

As it turned out, Huffman became GRTV's most notorious producer ever when he was arrested for indecent exposure for a segment on "Tim's Area of Control." The skit would have been tame compared to content readily available on the Internet, but Huffman has yet to branch out into the other medium. He attributes this to his lack of experience working with digital media, and a slight fear that he could be arrested for content placed there, as well.

According to WKTV's Norton, the 5,000 people watching GRTV at any given time will likely produce more recognition for Huffman or similar producers than the potential millions of the Internet audience. On YouTube, for instance, few entries ever receive 5,000 views.

"If you have your video on the Internet, great, so do about four billion other people," Norton said. "We have a backdoor ratings system: How many people recognize our hosts in the grocery store or on the street. We do very well by that."    

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