Dare video site betting users will play along

Times Staff Writer

Ben Bacal and Daron Niemerow definitely want you to try this at home.

The Southern California friends are the producers behind DareJunkies.com, an online mash-up of YouTube and the television show "Jackass." The site dares users to film themselves doing various stunts and share their antics on the Internet.

DareJunkies is part of a new crop of Internet companies vying for a slice of the red-hot market for online amateur video. Instead of serving up clips on any topic such as Google Video and YouTube, these newer entrants shoot for a narrower audience with a special interest focus or riskier fare.

As the name implies, DareJunkies hopes to capture eyeballs with videos that are wacky, exhibitionist or bizarre. The site invites people to choose from a list of dares and submit clips to compete for cash prizes of $100 to $5,000. The amount depends on how highly viewers rate their videos.

The dares are designed to be harmless enough to avoid lawsuits from stunts going badly awry but silly enough to be entertaining. Examples: Take a bath in public, sell doughnuts in front of a police station or smear yourself with peanut butter and walk into a dog park.

"This takes America's Funniest [Home] Videos to the next level," Bacal said. "It's outrageous and shocking like 'Jackass,' but not with people getting hurt."

Their strategy may skirt liability, but it still has risks. Going narrow can limit the number of viewers, cutting down the level of interest advertisers may have in the site. And serving up more daring videos can make sponsors even more leery.

"There are lots of viewers, but the amount of time they spend on it and the relative importance of that still has to be determined," said analyst David Hallerman of research firm EMarketer Inc.

Hallerman estimates that 107.7 million Americans viewed an online video at least once a month this year, up from 89.4 million last year. By 2010, he predicts that figure will jump to 157 million, their popularity driven by the social aspect of videos.

"Passing around viral videos is one way we communicate," said Fred Stutzman, a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill who studies social networks. "We're surfing not just for ourselves but for the collective. This is what makes YouTube so popular. It becomes a shared experience."

But ad spending for online video, although also growing rapidly, remains a tiny fraction of overall spending. Marketers will have spent $410 million this year, up 82% from 2005, according to EMarketer. That's still just 2.6% of the estimated online ad spending in 2006. By 2010, however, Hallerman predicts that more than $1 out of every $10 spent for online ads will go to video, making it a $2.9-billion market.

The medium took center stage in October, when Google Inc. agreed to buy video-sharing site YouTube Inc. for $1.65 billion, creating buzz around other players in online video such as Metacafe Inc., Break.com and Revver Inc.

Some analysts predict that the next wave of video sites will be more like DareJunkies, carving out ever narrower niches.

"We'll start to see lots of companies come in with weird angles trying to build targeted communities for advertisers," said Allen Weiner, media analyst at Gartner Inc. "We think there will be a land grab for the niches."

Bacal and Niemerow, both 28, believe their idea will appeal to both video viewers and creators.

"There are a lot of people who want to make videos, but they don't necessarily know what to shoot, so you end up with videos of sunsets or somebody's sleeping cat," Bacal said. "We wanted to give filmmakers a blueprint so they can go out and create something great. Something hilarious and funny that lots of people will want to watch."

Bacal came up with the idea nine years ago while at a family dinner.

"I got kinda bored and my imagination started to go," he said. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be funny if everyone started to expose secrets about each other and admit to all the naughty things they've done in their life?' That's when I formulated this idea for having these funny video clips on the Web."

At 19, he pitched his idea to various production companies. "But I was too young to articulate my idea well enough and nobody took me seriously," he said. "Also, broadband wasn't widely available at that point, so having video on the Internet wasn't a reality."

He let the idea go until this year, when he teamed with Niemerow, a childhood buddy from West Hollywood. With $160,000 in personal savings and an additional $350,000 from friends and family, the two got to work. They tapped WebSight Design Inc. in Sausalito, Calif., to build and maintain the site in exchange for part ownership.

DareJunkies, based on the bottom floor of Bacal's town house in West Hollywood, hopes to eventually make money from ads, sponsors and selling DVDs of top videos.

"Ben and I are going to tap into a revenue stream we call product placement challenges," Niemerow said. "Drink a Pepsi and give us your best burp, for instance."

The site went live Dec. 12, and most of the videos on it have been made by the founders' friends.

The challenge for DareJunkies is whether the site can attract mainstream advertisers with the sort of edgy, over-the-top content the founders hope people will submit.

"These guys are in a little bit of a Catch-22," said Todd Dagres, a venture capitalist at Boston-based Spark Capital. "To get viewers, they need bizarre, edgy challenges. There will be a temptation to really push the edge. But the edgier their dares, the more likely something bad will happen."

Going that route may attract lots of viewers, but not necessarily sponsors, said David Cohen, executive vice president of ad-buyer Universal McCann in New York.

"People like watching car wrecks," Cohen said. "But that doesn't mean an advertiser is going to want to sponsor videos of car wrecks."

Bacal and Niemerow, who screen all the dares on their site, say they're only after good, clean fun.

"A lot of the challenges aren't dangerous at all," Bacal said. "One is to do a video about sibling rivalry. Show the world all the silly things you guys fight about. Or interview the guy with the 18-foot reindeer on his house. You can make some great videos without having to fall out of a window."

Being more focused can help video sites draw bigger audiences, said Greg Morrow, president and co-founder of El Segundo-based PureVideo Networks Inc., which runs GrindTV.com and StupidVideos.com.

"Some videos get lost at sea in YouTube and Google Video," Morrow said. "But on our site, which is contextually more relevant, they're getting a lot more views. DareJunkies and GrindTV are examples of the next wave of services that meet the needs of specific communities through differentiated offerings."

Bacal and Niemerow believe that there are lots of budding filmmakers looking to produce the next "Borat," and the audience for those videos will be large.

"There's so much talent out there," Bacal said. "What we're doing is trying to open a porthole to give them their 15 minutes of fame. And their audience is all those people who are spending more and more time on the Internet."

DareJunkies tries to give filmmakers a nudge by giving them some cues. One reads, "Go through a drive-through restaurant as partially naked as you please. Yep, that's it. Order as usual and drive forward. When it's time to pay act as if it is just another day for you and nothing is different. Try to keep the employee by the window as long as possible by asking for a bunch of different things."

But such scripting runs the risk of hampering spontaneity, Morrow said.

Bacal said his site's dares leave lots of room for creativity and imagination.

"It can be in the way you act, in your editing, in your improvised dialogue, the location you pick, the people you integrate into your script," he said. "You can still end up with something original that can make people laugh. Or cry."

alex.pham@latimes.com

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