It wasn’t that long ago that I was marveling over the fact that mainstream media was paying attention to blogs, particularly for culling public opinion on hot button political issues. I remember being shocked when CNN started featuring a segment quoting bloggers on “The Situation Room” — shocked and wondering how it all happened. When did blogs suddenly become legitimate sources for television content?
Now bloggers are taking the next obvious step, adding online video or broadcasting themselves on online networks such as Blog TV or Revision3. And a lot of them are trying to make it onto the TV screen itself, with platform-crossing shows now by The Smoking Gun, Perez Hilton, and AOL’s TMZ on the celebrity beat.
Can a blog — an interactive experience centered around static images and the (sometimes badly) written word — successfully make the jump to the decidedly non-interactive, highly produced world of television? Does the blog “language” translate to television? While a few of these experiments will work, some bloggers who are brilliant in writing are less engaging in other mediums, such as television or audio podcasts. And some content just isn’t made to go from blog to TV.
To dig into what works and what doesn’t in making the blog-to-TV leap, I watched two different models of shows based on two very different blogs that I know well: TMZ and GigaOm.
Celebrity Blog TV
The TMZ blog (known as “the site that celebrities fear”) is famous for breaking stories like Britney Spears’ divorce or Nicole Richie’s drug arrest. Though owned and managed by AOL, the site doesn’t differ much from other independently produced celebrity blogs, which depend largely on interactivity via the comments section of posts to add fuel to news pieces. Because interactivity is mainly missing on recorded television, I was curious to see how TMZ’s blog content would translate into television vernacular, so I caught the first episode. Given other more humble “blogs do TV” attempts I’ve seen online, I was skeptical, but for TMZ it works to some extent.
Each celebrity story is short and punchy, and filled with TMZ’s typical sarcasm, much like the site’s blog stories. The segment’s narrator is like the voice of the blogger — so much so that you can imagine the very same words being written as a blog post. The same silly celebrity videos are shown between stories — cut-and-paste heads of the rich and famous in puppet show-like scenarios — before cutting back to the host, who introduces the next segment.
However, the blog-to-TV transition isn’t perfect, because the mediums are very different. I don’t need the creator Harvey Levin in between segments introducing the “posts.” The narration itself, including TMZ’s trademark “We’re just sayin’,” when read aloud, isn’t as funny. And, because this is TV, I can’t control the order in which I take in the content, unless I DVR it. The most entertaining part of TMZ and other entertainment blogs is the reader interaction, which is obviously missing on TV. In spite of that, TMZ has, in my opinion, successfully extended (if not exactly replicated) its blog brand in the television medium.
Return of TechTV
In the world of online technology news and commentary, journalist Om Malik’s GigaOm blog has made him a Silicon Valley celebrity. Recently, Malik took his blog brand to the online TV realm, with his new “GigaOm Show” on Revision3, a “TV network for the web,” which produces content mostly around tech, the Internet and related topics. On the show, Malik and co-host Joyce Kim talk tech news and gossip, interviewing Internet movers and shakers and providing insightful commentary.
I’m a regular GigaOm reader, and I really enjoy the blog. But is it wrong to say I’d rather read him than watch him? Maybe I am spoiled for overproduced and polished television, but I prefer this blogger as a blogger, not as a television host. And the subject matter — new startups, Silicon valley gossip, et al — however engaging when written out in a thoughtful blog post does not make riveting television.
But what of the blog wars and Internet rivalries we have come to love reading about on Malik’s blog and others? Surely those make for good TV. Not so much. When Malik paired up Digg and Revision3 founder Kevin Rose and former Netscape general manager Jason Calacanis for his Internet Celebrity Deathmatch episode, I expected some drama. That wasn’t the case, as they both behaved like perfect gentlemen that seem to even like each other. What’s that about bloggers hiding behind their keyboards?
On the bright side, Malik has found a couple of good ways to make his brand of TV interactive, such as allowing for user comments, which he reads at the end of the program. And just like on his blog, Malik discloses any potential conflicts of interest, like his co-host being the corporate attorney for Jason Calacanis’ new startup. In addition, Revision3, unlike most traditional television networks, actually takes viewer feedback on the site’s message boards and via email, and makes changes to the shows based on it. But on “The GigaOm Show”‘s message board, I see that I am not alone in loving Malik’s blog, but being less enthusiastic about his TV show. One viewer writes: “I read Om’s site on a daily basis. I’m just saying, not everyone is suited for being a host. Stick to the blog, Om.”
Making the Jump or Jumping the Shark?
Malik isn’t the only blogger that could be asked to “stick to blogging.” Blogs and television are totally different media languages, and I think there are some blogs that are suited to television and others that aren’t. A celebrity blog like TMZ seems like a natural fit because in the end, the content format isn’t that much different from that of a traditional gossip show like Entertainment Tonight. The stories lend themselves to dynamic television, and even if the host weren’t up to par, the celebrity news and images speak for themselves.
Other topics — like technology — while extremely interesting, have a harder time in a medium like television (witness the failures of CNET TV, ZDTV and TechTV). While some tech personalities have done well at online TV content, such as journalist John Dvorak’s Cranky Geeks, some amazing bloggers will inevitably fail at attempts to make entertaining TV out of their blog content. They will fail either because they don’t know a lot about what makes TV work (unlike the creators of TMZ, who were television producers first) or because they just don’t come across well in the medium.
While I don’t think this has happened with Om Malik, some bloggers’ attempts at video or audio can damage their blog brand. When you have a brilliant blog with thousands of readers, why give them video content that looks like a cable access television show or a podcast that sounds like a mundane, too-long telephone conversation? For an illustration of what I’m talking about, just check out BlogTV. Most of the content consists of bloggers sitting in front of their webcams and talking to the camera, or talking in split screen to another blogger. It’s great that people have access to free tools to express themselves in the medium they choose, but let’s not call it TV, because it isn’t. And if you do want to call it TV, then that means we expect others to want to watch, which won’t happen if it’s not entertaining.
Television, like literature, film, theatre or even blogs, is its own medium with its own codes. Like it or not, we grew up with those codes and are programmed to like expect certain things when we watch television. While we may speak one medium’s language fluently, we might babble like a baby in another.
I think the idea of expanding from blogging into other mediums should be considered long and hard before actually going for it. As a blogger, I’d ask myself: Why am I doing it? Can I maintain the quality level of my blog in the TV space? Is my TV content supplemental to my blog or am I just regurgitating stuff that can be told on my site? And does my content — and my personality — lend itself to television? My personal answers to all of these questions are the reason you won’t be seeing me do a television show anytime soon.
What do you think? Which bloggers do you think have made a successful jump from text into audio or video? Which should not have even tried it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.