Web Entertainment Gets Personal

"Every day, we start out with peanut butter toast and apple slices," Jody Stephensen tells the camera.

Stephensen, an Arkansas woman in her 30s with long blond hair and a distinct drawl, has the dizzy affection of a new mother. But she's not talking about a child; she's talking about her pet squirrel, Rocky, who lives in a cage in the living room and drinks from a baby bottle. The camera captures Rocky leaping about in poorly lit rooms, balancing on the rails of a dining room chair and snuggling with Stephensen. Rocky's spunky personality, Stephensen explains, lifts her out of periodic depression caused by attacks of emphysema.

This quirky little documentary will soon be on public display at CameraPlanet.com, a New York-based entertainment site that launches in March.

It will take its place among other homegrown human-interest video shorts on CameraPlanet's Pets channel. There will be 16 channels in all, including Generation Z (for teenagers) and Planet Justice (covering crime and legal issues).

CameraPlanet joins a handful of sites offering the Internet's latest entertainment idea: home movies. AtomFilms and iFilm led the trend when they launched in 1999 with sites giving amateur filmmakers a place to distribute their short films and animation. Now other sites are following, looking to stake their claim on novice talent and discover the next Blair Witch Project.

But CameraPlanet is different.

"We consciously don't want to be talking to filmmakers," says Steve Rosenbaum, CameraPlanet's CEO. "That's not our business." Instead, Rosenbaum wants to create niche programming by and about people of different age groups, interests and economic and geographic backgrounds; what they'll have in common is that they're all filmmaking novices.

Visitors to CameraPlanet will be able to submit story ideas, which the site's staff of former journalists and documentary producers will then screen. When the staffers find a promising submission, they'll help hone it. For instance, a mom might suggest a story about her son's interest in soccer for the Parenting channel. "We'd write back and say, 'It's a little broad. Can you think of a particular incident, rather than the whole history of your son playing soccer?'" explains Rosenbaum.

CameraPlanet's team will then walk mom through the process of reporting the story. When the raw footage comes in, the producers will edit it into a two-and-a-half-minute video.

Rosenbaum is determined that his staffers keep the creators in the loop during the editing process. "I tell the producers, 'If the person doesn't like the end result, you're fired,'" says Rosenbaum.

Rosenbaum may be new to the Net, but he isn't new to the documentary film business. His original company, a 15-year-old New York TV production studio called Broadcast News Network, turns a profit by making documentaries -- on subjects as wide-ranging as children's beauty pageants and heroin addicts -- for cable channels, including A&E, CourtTV and Bravo.

He's also been involved in "user-submitted content" for years. The seeds for CameraPlanet lie in a show BNN created for MTV in 1995 called News Unfiltered.

Viewers were sent video cameras to tape news segments, which were then professionally edited. More recently, Rosenbaum tried to launch a TV and Web property called FreeSpeech in which viewers could tape stories that would air on TV and then be archived on the Web site. USA Networks agreed to invest in and distribute FreeSpeech, but backed out before the show aired -- not mainstream enough, Rosenbaum explains.

As Rosenbaum evolves FreeSpeech into CameraPlanet, he has ditched traditional TV distribution for the freedom of the Internet. CameraPlanet's launch officially will mark BNN's transition into a Web company; it has changed its name to BNNTV.com and has hired a staff of 50 to manage the site.

Rosenbaum's first challenge as an Internet company may be easing investors' fears about scalability. Though the costs of paying CameraPlanet's producers to package user content is cheaper than filming it all in-house (a la original entertainment sites like Digital Entertainment Network), it's also more expensive and time-consuming than relying entirely on the work of others. But Rosenbaum believes his hands-on approach makes for more compelling entertainment.

It's also what makes his company unique. He will be the first to marry the originality and freshness of home movies with the polish of professional editing. Only one other Web entertainment site of any stature -- Wirebreak Networks -- plans to help shape user content, but it hasn't done so yet.

Community sites like GeoCities and NBCi's Xoom let viewers upload home video to their homepages. Startup sites Earthnoise.com and HomeNext.com take this idea a step further by creating a kind of MP3.com for home movies, organized by subject matter. Though a useful service, (grandma can watch footage of your wedding from her nursing home), few would call this entertainment.

On the less homespun side, indie film sites and an increasing number of online film festivals on sites like Yahoo are soliciting short movies from undiscovered filmmakers. The upside for these sites is that they get ready-made, cheap, "sticky" content; the filmmaker gets online distribution and a chance that the right person might see it.

But the limitations of online film festivals are already beginning to show.

Bolt.com, a teen site, launched a film festival in October in partnership with indie film site iFilm. It promised that all submissions would be digitized and uploaded to the site so visitors could vote on them. The winning films would be shown at the Angelika theater in New York.

Two months later, there are still no digitized films available on which to vote at Bolt.com. But it's not because the site didn't get any. The problem is that the handful Bolt.com got weren't any good. According to Mike Dibianco, a Bolt.com producer, the entries mostly depicted "kids hanging out with their friends."

That's exactly the kind of thing CameraPlanet's producers will help people avoid. But that kind of editorial effort does not come cheap; CameraPlanet will pay for it by selling advertising and sponsorships across the channels. It will also hire its services out to other branded properties, including cable networks and magazines that wish to extend their brands online. For instance, the CourtTV Web site could feature a link that says, "Have you ever been accused of a crime you didn't commit?" The link would take users to a CourtTV-sponsored channel on CameraPlanet where they could submit their story idea.

CameraPlanet could also sell videos to TV, says Tommy Cohen, CameraPlanet's investment adviser. "You become an image bank," says Cohen, "and CameraPlanet acts as an agent to those properties."

Such an idea is no doubt a nice carrot for VCs as Rosenbaum negotiates his first round of funding, but it does not speak to the heart of CameraPlanet.

Talk to Rosenbaum for five minutes and it's apparent that his dreams aren't about servicing harried network news producers.

"I ask people at cocktail parties, 'What do you like about TV?' and the best they can say is that they use it as a tranquilizer to veg out. The Internet can transform TV into something more valuable," says Rosenbaum.

Rosenbaum is counting on people turning away from television's overprocessed fare and responding to CameraPlanet's authenticity. "If I fail -- if people in their heart of hearts want to choose mind-numbing experiences over engaging communal experiences -- then that has devastating implications beyond the TV business."

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