Never Get a Boob Job in Mexico, 4/01/07: While having a mundane discussion, NoHos Cara and Blue respond to Sophia’s call for help: one of her breasts appears to be deflating. She exclaims, “Never get a boob job in Mexico!” The group then announces it is an April Fool’s prank.
Blue’s Decision about Going Topless, 12/21/06: NoHo Blue, who has begun a job as a cocktail waitress in a strip club, discusses an offer to strip there. In a later episode she tells how she had the chance to go onstage and finally tried it, but decided it’s not for her.
Me, My Art & I, 9/23/06: NoHo’s Cara discusses which art to exhbit in her upcoming show.
My Sex Tips Gig, 10/21/06: NoHo Daniella announces her new job of giving sexual advice for guys in a webisodic format on LiveVideo.
Sexology for Men #12 Blowjob: After leaving the NoHos, Daniella does a series of webisodic sex advice episodes for men for LiveVideo.com. In this one she tells guys how to behave to talk their woman into giving them fellatio.
Getting Back Together with Eddie, 5/22/07: “Development Executive” Angelica visits the WeHos telling them their vlog might be developed into a bigger reality series. She wants Leah and Mikaela to dump Brady (“a potty-mouth”) and tells a hesitant Leah that she needs an active love interest and should either get back together with Eddie or become a lesbian.
A WeHo Mothers Day, 5/13/07, 2.51 min.: Leah and Michaela are cross cut as ...
... they make the obligatory phone call to Mom.
Being an African American Actress, 03/11/07, 2.23 min.: In a continuous take, Mikaela discusses the problem of being a female actor trying to break into the business (only 25% of the acting jobs are for women) and that this is compounded by being black (only 5% of the acting jobs are for African Americans).
Busted: Camera view of living room with back of sofa. Pan right, two-shot of Brady and Leah. Flustered Kim, “Hey guys…” (repeat) “Hey guys…” Pan left to Kim.
One feature of the current state of the Internet, Web 2.0, is the widespread appearance of vlogs (from video web logs — serial videos from the same source), including mock series which appear only on the web as episodic dramas.[open endnotes in new window] One set of examples are the collectively known HoShows.
Let me be clear I that I don’t have some grand claim about my subject or the specific object of investigation. I don’t think the HoShows have decisive meaning or are a significant contribution to the aesthetic, cultural, or institutional nature of screen media. This stuff is profoundly mediocre. But then, why consider it? I think it notable as precisely a moment, a passing fancy in screen technology. This lets us have some insight into those things, which are similar in one way or another, and the very fact of living in a rapidly changing “new media” present. You can step in the river, but it keeps flowing. Today technological change, institutional and regulatory change, industrial change, and audience adaptation flow together in new patterns, with changing currents and interesting eddies. So, while the specific example is not very notable, the larger trend it is a part of is worth considering. I’ll return to this at the end.
I came across the WeHoGirls in their early months from links on other sites. Originally I was looking at and for diary vlogs following an earlier interest in Jennicam. Through surfing, I found I preferred those which involved a certain amount of dramatic documentary rather than a lone vlogger talking to a webcam mounted on the domestic computer. I have an extensive knowledge of diaristic and autobiographical and personal media work from teaching and writing about experimental film and video as well as personal documentary including home movies, and also making some diaristic films. In surfing, I was interested in work that was shot on a single videocamera often in one long take dealing with fairly mundane events or discussions, rather than performances (dancing, lip-synching, etc.) or staged or comic events (funniest home videos genre) or active investigations of a space, place, event, etc. (a more traditional use of documentary).
It seemed to me that what was emerging with new inexpensive video technology connected up with web exhibition was something like early portable video art such as diaristic PortaPak work done by conscious artists. But now it was being done naively by young people, in particular, using a new consumer technology and connected to their own narcissism. (I take that as a fact of origins for much artist production, not as in itself a judgment.) Some of this involved groups of family members (usually siblings), friends, and roommates. Much of the imagination of this kind of work existed with the pre-existing model of MTV’s early reality dramas Real Life and Road Rules, which established for a generation the documentation of an artificially formed group of young people as the object of the gaze. Later shows such as Big Brother extended the trope in a competition and prize format. I should also mention that a web-based exploitation format paralleled these late 90s and early 00s developments: the commercial porn webcasts that extend the earlier phone sex format with visuals and the house of “college girls” who spend all day and night in a house with many spycams and occupy themselves with dressing, undressing, showering, masturbating, and having sex with other women in the house.
Starting in September 2006, for one year a small Los Angeles media production house, Iron Sink Media, produced an interrelated series of short episodic fake vlogs commissioned for LiveVideo.com. Approaching near-daily frequency, the units dealt with the daily domestic lives of 20-something housemates in different neighborhoods: the NoHoGirls, WeHoGirls, HiHoGirls, and VanNuysGuys franchises (covering North Hollywood, West Hollywood, Hollywood Hills, and Van Nuys neighborhoods of LA). [Click on titles to open sites in new window; see URLs in Notes section.]
By and large, the housemates were depicted as recent college grads seeking careers in the entertainment business. Ending after 12 months, collectively the HoShows had over 16 million viewers and produced over 900 short webisodes. The WeHoGirls finale had over 250,000 views at last count. The shows originated on LiveVideo’s site, but many were quickly reposted to other video host sites such as Yahoo, Google and YouTube video. Iron Sink went on to produce Roommates for MySpaceTV, which uses a similar premise for short webisodes. Two 20-episode seasons of Roommates were produced in fall 2007 and winter-spring 2008.
Initially presented as reality vlogs, the shows gave no credits. (In this way the series was like the lonelygirl15 ersatz video blog which began June 2006; HoGirls began in September 2006.) As posted on LiveVideo, viewers were invited to respond with their own videos and/or texts, providing a kind of “interactivity.” From time to time within the show episodes, the characters would respond to blog comments posted by viewers. (Reading the comments–and sometimes viewing them with their vlog postings — reveals the posters as by and large not actual contemporaries of the talent on the screen but younger viewers — often young teens — and some older guys who often seem socially challenged.) Also, some of the fictional characters also had MySpace pages, inviting connections there. The characters in the separate streams came to interact from time to time, e.g., by responding to the vlog of another house, or one of the guys visiting one of the girls’ houses. Although a local LA news and entertainment blog, LAist, quickly identified the project as a corporate imitation of amateur vlogging, many viewers apparently took the posts as “authentic,” at least for a while, or went along with the make-believe since it made it more entertaining.
Given the well-recognized problem of making vlogging (or any diarist work) interesting and entertaining to a broader audience than established friends, fellow geeks, and the emotionally limited, what made this project work? The producer/creator Scott Sakarin explains “the shows [sic] conceit of a make believe reality farce...[exhibiting] these very real fictional characters” allowed for viewer engagement. Yes, he said: “very real fictional characters.”
I believe the project’s success rests partly in its close approximation of sitcom situations and scenes, the fairly engaging nature of the fresh on-screen talent, and the topical range of typical domestic issues of young adults within a typically short (1.5 to 3 min. segment) episode. This works well with webcasting because the audience can subscribe and quickly follow or catch up on episodes when it fits their schedule. Dramatic conflicts are always minor and situational; resolutions are always comic; and situations are always fairly plausible. In short, it works for viewers because it is light, amusing, convenient, and watchable. It works for the producers, Iron Sink, because it is inexpensive in terms of technology and talent, easy to shoot and edit in a quick-and-dirty style, and quickly “branded” because of the repetitive characters. For LiveVideo.com it works because it is very inexpensive content which invites regular return viewing (unlike say, the unsorted jungle of YouTube) by a prime demographic (younger viewers) and thus allows for relatively predictable advertising sales on the LiveVideo page. For the onscreen talent, it works because it provides young aspiring actors the all-important exposure so hard to get at the start of a career in Los Angeles, even if the pay is most likely far below union scale. And it is evidence of accomplished onscreen performance that can be brought forward at the next audition. But above all it invites people to become regulars who repeatedly come to the LiveVideo site.
What can you do in 1.5 to 3 minutes of episodic drama? Actually quite a bit. For example, on A WeHo Mothers Day two of the WeHo Girls phone home. [Click on link to see episode.] The two different calls are cross cut with a hand-held camera recording the daughter’s end of the conversation. It is mildly amusing, because of parallel statements (“Hi, Mom, Happy Mother’s Day….Did you get the flowers I sent?”) that underline the social conventionality of the event, and the virtually obligatory responses to parental worries at the other end of the call: about work, about career, about dating, about settling down into marriage, etc. Completed, the episode comically documents a social convention and obligation through contrast, slightly advances character development, and reveals more of the ongoing (and often banal) character universe.
The entire HoShow universe is produced, written, directed, and edited by men while most of the stories involve young women. Some of the situations are easily grasped as improv-like moments (e.g. the Mother’s Day phone call home), while others reflect typical 20-something situations (is the new neighbor guy gay or straight? potential dating material or not?). Others seem more boy-writer motivated than character-plausible (the “trial” lesbian kiss; returning to the house after shooting a commercial for condoms with an assortment of absurdly-flavored samples such as buffalo chicken wings.) But none of them reflect deeper problems that might not lead to an easy comic resolution. An exception that proves the rule is WeHo housemate Mikaela in a monologue about her aspiration to be an actor, the limits that she faces as an African American and a woman in the business, and her resolve to improve the situation. [Click here to see clip, Being an African American Actress] I sense this is a very sincere statement presented by the actor herself, not something scripted for her by a writer.
In a good typical webisode, three of the WeHoGirls enter their living room to find Kim and new neighbor guy Rex on the sofa. Leading up to this event, there were several episodes among the women discussing if Rex was gay or straight. He finally said he was gay, disappointing the gals who saw him as potential dating material. [Click here to see clip, Rex and Kim Busted, 7/29/07]
Shot analysis of Busted
Only 1.01 min. long, the episode works very efficiently. The handheld camera enters the room with the three housemates. With the back of the sofa to them, Kim’s head pops up, a little surprised or flustered, covering her front with a large pillow. A whip pan gives the 3 gals reaction shot, and then back to the sofa as Rex’s head appears and it’s clear what has been going on. Roommate Brady expresses her anger and the three intruders exit. Kim follows and Rex is left alone.
In the sequence of shots below, the edits are jump cuts from the single camera, with sound bridges over the cut. The three roommates reaction shot to the reveal of Rex is a classic piece of cinematography known in manuals as “3 faces west,” which calls for perfect blocking of the talent, thus revealing the planned nature of the event. However the focus is not perfect throughout: in the first shot of Kim, she is out of focus while the background of the room is sharp. This can be read as a signifier of “authenticity.” The camera operator is not revealed within the episode, though at this time in the narrative an unseen character “Kirby” is referenced as the usual cameraperson for the group.