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Rocketboom's Powerful Lift-Off


As the video opens, the young woman zips in from the left side of the screen, rolling her chair into place, behind a laminated desk and in front of a world map. "I'm Amanda Congdon, and this is Rocketboom," says the blonde with a big grin, explaining that today's show will be an experiment in rapid-fire dispatches.

With that, she shoots out of the screen to the right, reappearing from the left seconds later to report that American Idol fans cast 41 million votes by cell phone during the show's contest. "Damn," she deadpans. "That's more than voted for the President." She pauses, tips her head. "Well, maybe not." Then, zap, Congdon is yanked off the set once again and reappears to report on an iPod vending machine. Congdon rounds out the show with a spoof of a weather station pushing a "supercalifragilisticexpialidoppler" machine and a report on a $5.50 lock for Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

Don't bother looking for Congdon on your cable channel lineup. Rocketboom is a video blog, posted at rocketboom.com, and in 10 months it has become the most popular site of its kind on the Net. The brainchild of former musician Andrew Michael Baron, who writes the shows with Congdon, the three-minute mock news program covers everything from tech trends to pop culture with frank irreverence, sly humor, and a big dollop of unabashed silliness.

The approach is resonating with viewers. Daily downloads have doubled in the past six weeks, to 50,000. If they stay on that pace, they'll soon approach the 200,000 viewers of an established cable show, such as CNBC's Kudlow & Cramer. "There was this excitement early on that we videobloggers were at the forefront of something, but we didn't know what would happen," says Baron.

These are the early days of video blogging. Most of the postings on the Web are rough and tedious -- little more than home movies. But the success of Rocketboom and a few sites like it underscore the potential of video blogs. Cheaper video recorders mean just about anyone can make videos, while the spread of speedy Net service means almost anybody can watch clips posted online. The result? The Internet is coming alive with a mix of video, from the polished parody of Rocketboom to the raw interviews of reporters. As these videos flow into the living room, they will reshape what we think of as television. "TV will be transformed," says Mitchell Kapor, the founder of Lotus Development Corp. (IBM) and now an investor in Participatory Culture, an online video startup. "People will look at it as historically quaint that you had to watch something that others chose for you."

Congdon and Baron have no doubt their quirky show is the future. So while Rocketboom shows are lighthearted, the two are dead serious about their work. They post new episodes every weekday morning, beginning the process by looking online for news and reading through suggestions from viewers and six correspondents in the U.S. and Europe. After e-mailing the script back and forth, they meet around 6 p.m. in downtown Manhattan to record the show in a pea-green conference room in a turn-of-the-century building.

SUBSCRIPTION FEE?

Taping usually takes about an hour and a half. The duo have detailed discussions about whether to throw out certain lines or how Congdon should move her head. One evening in late July, they do 15 takes for a 20-second segment on couples using their own bone chips to grow rings -- for jewelry. They jettison one joke and work out the length of a pause before the punch line. On the final take, Baron watches Congdon intently through the camera. "The process takes a month," she says, pausing slightly before cocking her eyebrow. "But the results last a lifetime." She continues looking into the camera until Baron, in his Texas Hill Country accent, says: "I think that's it, don't you?" After the taping, Baron heads to his Upper West Side apartment to tackle the editing, typically two to three hours more.

With Rocketboom's one-year anniversary approaching, the duo are planning their next steps. In the fall, they'll experiment with a subscription fee of around $3.50 a month. The three-minute show will remain free, but paying customers will get extras, including longer shows and outtakes. Although subscriptions have had spotty success online, the Rocketboom folks want to test this route first rather than potentially having to change their show to please advertisers. Still, if subscriptions don't pan out, they'll turn to ads to fund their ambitious plan of creating a network of shows and hiring writers and hosts. "We have big ideas," Congdon says. "People laugh at us all the time, but we figure we have to start somewhere."

For two people who didn't know each other a year ago, they share a strong sense of mission. Baron, now 35, spent his 20s in Austin playing in bands, running an art gallery, and supporting himself with tech jobs. In 2001, he moved to New York for grad school, studying computing and video at Parsons School of Design. The flurry of online videos during the Presidential election was an epiphany for Baron, who hasn't owned a TV in a decade. "Suddenly, online video was easy," he says. He came up with the idea for a mock newscast and posted an ad for an actress on the online ad service Craigslist last summer. After getting 450 responses, he hired Congdon for $50 a show in September.

At the time, Congdon knew little about technology and even less about blogging. The 24-year-old comes from an acting family; both her parents worked on Broadway. She dove into drama a couple of years ago after studying communications at Northwestern University and working briefly at ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi (PUB). A whirl of jobs followed an appearance as the coat-check girl on NBC's The Restaurant in 2004, but that had slowed by the time Baron posted his ad. After first meeting him at a little studio in Chinatown, she was won over and has become a co-owner of the business. "This is something so innovative, I wouldn't want to stop doing it," she says. "I feel almost as if we could end up in history books."

While Rocketboom looks like an offbeat news show, it's like a typical blog in how it fosters a community. The site uses videos sent in by viewers and is building up a network of correspondents. The latter include Zadie Diaz in Los Angeles and Chuck Olsen in Minneapolis, who report on local happenings for $50 a piece. In July, Diaz stopped into a comic book convention in San Diego, sending in a comic book-like collage of mock light-saber fights and people walking the floors in Superman and Willy Wonka costumes.

Established outlets, such as ABC (DIS) and CBS (VIA) are tracking video blogging and taking some tentative steps. Larry Kramer, the new head of CBS's digital efforts, is plunging into creating traditional blogs that will have some video. ABC News agrees it needs to reach its audience wherever it is, but is more skeptical of the overall quality of today's video blogs or podcasts. While both are putting more traditional video online, neither plans stand-alone ongoing video blogs, which some observers think is a mistake. "Rocketboom is a great model that could be used to try to leverage all this talent sitting around CBS, ABC, and the other outlets," says Merrill Brown, a media consultant.

Major broadcasters may not be paying close attention to Rocketboom, but others are. New video blogs are popping up every day and many are closely tracking Baron and Congdon's attempts to build a business around their budding popularity. "Once Andrew can figure out a business model that other people can copy, we will have a thousand Rocketbooms," says Jay Dedman, co-founder of the pioneering Videoblogging.info community group. So if you've got 200 cable channels and nothing to watch, rest assured. More choices are on the way.

By Heather Green in New York


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