Content November 2006

Thank You, YouTube

DIY video is making merely professional television seem stodgy, slow, and hopelessly last century

When Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were bringing I Love Lucy to the airwaves in 1951, videotape didn’t exist yet. The only way to create a permanent record of a televised moment was to use a technique called kinescoping, in which a movie camera recorded off a television monitor. Since the country had yet to be linked for live broadcast, viewers in the western half of the country generally had to make do with kinescoped copies of the live productions coming out of New York. Lucy and Desi wanted to make their show in Los Angeles, where they lived, but corporate sponsors insisted that New York audiences—then the country’s largest advertising market—see higher-quality productions than kinescoping offered. The solution: have three movie cameras simultaneously record the performance on a stage in front of a studio audience, with a director stitching together the feeds into a cohesive whole. So was born the three-camera sitcom, television’s most dominant and enduring format.

You don’t have to be a futurehead to see that the sitcom era, and traditional television with it, is today being bookended. Video is now startlingly easy to produce, edit, and distribute. If you’ve watched the Web-based video-sharing site YouTube grow over the past six to eight months from Web backwater to the world’s largest video outlet, you’ve seen Americans embrace the idea of becoming television producers and even building their own mini-networks.

The effect of this rabbity digital proliferation has not just been economic; it’s also been aesthetic. Corporate television’s recent concern about digital media has been whether choice would swamp quality. But digital video is doing more than just providing infinite alternatives; it’s making network product seem visually slow and outdated. The quality of video produced for the Web (most of it less than a thousandth the cost of, say, an episode of Two and a Half Men, the most popular three-camera sitcom still on television) is remarkably good, if you factor out suddenly superannuated television values like proper microphones, lighting, and steady camera work. The BC, a recent five-episode parody of Fox’s The OC done for mere hundreds of dollars per episode, was built in and around the Boston College campus and featured hilarious cameos by a BC chaplain and other local celebrities. It’s filled with deft jump cuts, sharp writing, and genuinely funny moments—and its creators now have the inevitable HBO development deal.

This summer, lonelygirl15 grew into the biggest phenomenon of the early YouTube era by offering … very little, actually. It was, simply (or apparently simply, because its huge audience invested it with a variety of talismanic meanings), a fifteen-year-old staring intently into the camera, delivering comic riffs on various subjects: her overbearing parents, who won’t let her leave her room; a would-be boyfriend; and, gratifyingly, on Jared Diamond and Heisenberg. The clips, all two minutes or less, generated their own cottage industry of responses and parodies, as well as increasingly far-fetched efforts to tie her videos to the occultist Aleister Crowley or to an Alternate Reality Game; or, less far-fetched, to a brilliantly evil viral marketing campaign. In the end the conspiracy theorists proved right: Bree was a twenty-year-old acting a role in what two filmmakers hope will eventually become a full-length conventional movie. In retrospect, it was a thrilling hoax that was perfectly attuned to the cultural moment, playing in the interstices between authenticity and artifice, amateurism and professionalism. The tantalizing notion that she might in fact have actually been a “lonely girl” hung in the air: a digital-age Rapunzel waiting to be rescued by … who, exactly?

Watch an episode of lonelygirl15
My Difficut Decision
(Aired September 25, 2006)

The lonelygirl15 series, shot on a $150 Web camera, shows that digital video can be made by anyone, go anywhere, and pose as anything. And, clearly, audiences have made a new compact with creators: traditional notions of quality, they are signaling, no longer matter (the out-of-focus, off-kilter MySpace cell-phone snap being the portrait painting of the mid-aughts). In fact, this grittiness, lack of polish, and occasionally shocking intimacy constitute a new aesthetic of realness, much as the scratchiness, feedback, and ostentatious amateurishness of the Sex Pistols made everything else seem like mere affectation. Fear not, revanchists: Do-It- Yourself video will ultimately not mean the end of classic filmic values, just as the Pistols—and Public Enemy and N.W.A and Nirvana after them—did not kill off bad heavy metal, overproduced bling-crazed hip-hop, and unctuous, keening pop rock. Drama, both on television and in film, appears better suited to survive the onslaught than comedy, mostly because narrative seems to be an eternal value. And it’s even been argued that current dramas like 24, Lost, and Prison Break (and pretty much everything on HBO) are so good because of the challenge from digital media: they are faster, more complex, and smarter than the shows we grew up on.

DIY video is, in fact, not an overnight phenomenon. One could draw a line from lonelygirl15 as far back as Grey Gardens, the brutally deadpan 1975 Maysles brothers documentary about the batty housebound “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter, the unwittingly fabulous “Little Edie” (aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jackie O). But it’s indisputable that the advent of low-cost digital video, and its almost-no-cost distribution, make this more than a passing moment. The breakthrough expression of punk video was most likely The Blair Witch Project, a pseudo-documentary horror movie that became the hipster smash of 1999. The conceit was that three student filmmakers disappear somewhere in the Maryland woods while making a documentary, never to be seen again. All we have left is the very tape you’re watching, a coup-de-théâtre that at the time had some of the frisson of a snuff film: the tape just runs out. Once seen all the way through, the story is a bit of a nothingburger, but the whipsaw camera movements, lack of conventional dramatic beats, and off-kilter angles hit emotional notes that mainstream moviemaking couldn’t touch. (Sharing this production approach—but little else—MTV’s Jackass became the DIY- television breakthrough of 2000.)

Presented by

Michael Hirschorn is the executive vice president of original programming and production at VH1. He will be writing the Content column in each issue of The Atlantic.

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