Welcome to their world -- all of it
Jody Gnant stops broadcasting when she steps into the shower or goes places that ban cameras. Other than that, her life is an open video feed.
Two months ago, the little-known singer and songwriter from Phoenix wanted to promote her sound, which she calls a cross between Janis Joplin and Jan Brady. So Gnant, 29, turned on her webcam and became a so-called lifecaster, streaming live video of her every move 24/7.
Her biceps are now so strong from carrying her webcam-equipped laptop that she bowls with a ball that’s 2 pounds heavier. Her self-made reality show has drawn so much attention to her music career that she has sold nearly 1,000 CDs and her music video is being featured on MySpace and in movie theaters.
“I no longer feel alone,” she said. “I feel like I have people rooting for me every step of the way.”
Call it Reality TV 2.0, the next step in the Internet’s evolution as an entertainment medium.
Gnant and a growing number of people are turning cameras on themselves and on their worlds, broadcasting the results in real time.
Lifecasting comes naturally to today’s youths, who are used to living their lives in public, posting details of every hookup and breakup on their Facebook or MySpace pages. Anyone with a laptop, webcam and Internet connection can do it.
As with any new medium, people are trying to figure out the rules of etiquette. The budding phenomenon raises questions about the privacy of people who may not want to appear in the live streams, as well as copyright implications of, for example, broadcasting music that’s playing in the background.
But companies such as Los Angeles-based Ustream, which powers Gnant’s webcast, and Justin.tv in San Francisco are racing to become the dominant purveyor of such live, unfiltered programs. In the last year, the technology behind live streaming has become so cheap that start-ups such as Mogulus, MyStreams and Veodia can afford to give it away in hopes that they can make money through the mainstays of TV’s reality shows: advertising and product placement.
“It’s pretty obvious to everyone that TV is migrating to the Web,” said Paul Graham, a founding partner of Y Combinator, an investment fund backing Justin.tv. “This medium will create a bunch of new stars.”
Justin.tv gained notoriety this year when co-founder and namesake Justin Kan, a 24-year-old Yale graduate, strapped a camera to his head and started streaming every moment of his life over the Internet.
Thousands of people watch his irreverent, sometimes crude and completely uncensored life as their chat room conversations scroll beside the video.
Viewers see the world through Kan’s eyes -- except when he goes to the bathroom (he points the camera toward the ceiling), has a romantic moment (he takes off the camera) or enters a confidential business meeting (he mutes it).
The Justin.tv crew has raised money through venture financing and refined the videorecording technology to make it lighter and more portable. Kan can now clip his tiny webcam anywhere.
The small company plans to officially open its network to all would-be broadcasters today, banking that lifecasting will siphon viewers from TV by bringing programming to the people. Justin.tv has grown to nearly 700 channels, generating 1,650 hours of programming a day.
Ustream already features a lineup of more than 48,000 broadcasters, including young aspiring entertainers and even presidential hopefuls, who collectively produce 5,000 hours of programming a day.
John Ham, 29, and Brad Hunstable, 28, West Point graduates who served in the same Army unit, created Ustream to connect soldiers overseas with their families. They landed funding and moved to Los Angeles for their shot at the big time. They opened up the network to all comers in March.
These start-ups are the latest contenders in a viral video revolution that has attracted an enthusiastic following -- and some envy -- among traditional media executives who are eager to reach the young people seeking entertainment on YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.
“Everyone in New York and Hollywood sees the eyeballs and they want to be involved,” said Mike Vorhaus, managing director at consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates. “The Internet is their HBO, a way to do things new and differently.”
Some observers are skeptical that amateurs will be able to capitalize much on the trend. Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey said Internet reality shows were a novel social experiment that would generate flashes of brilliance and mountains of mediocrity. But he doesn’t think most people’s unscripted, unedited lives are compelling enough to woo advertisers or sustain viewer interest.
“As a large-scale business, I don’t see it,” he said.
But the Web is giving birth to new stars. Justin.tv features Naked Cowboy, a buff Times Square busker who plays guitar for tourists in his underwear. Ustream had featured a group of actors producing their own 10-part television series, “35.”
One of the most popular lifecasters is Justine Ezarik, the 23-year-old daughter of a coal miner and a gym teacher, who has gone from freelance graphic designer in Pittsburgh to Web celeb since launching her iJustine lifecast on Justin.tv in May. In August, she created a video about her 300-page iPhone bill that was viewed more than 3 million times in the first 10 days.
With her model good looks, technical savvy and creative streak, Ezarik is fielding interest from New York and Hollywood.
“It has opened the doors to many new opportunities,” she said.
Few people have the stamina to broadcast their entire lives as Gnant and Ezarik have done. Instead, they showcase events such as weddings, baptisms, even funerals.
When her grandparents couldn’t attend her graduation from Stanford University, 22-year-old Marie-Jo Mont-Reynaud used Ustream to let them watch the ceremony, plus a performance when she jumped onstage to dance with the Stanford band and tried playing the trombone.
“My grandma loved it,” Mont-Reynaud said.
Some established entertainers are using live Web streams to boost their profiles. CW’s teen television drama “One Tree Hill” is experimenting with live chats with cast members and plans to broadcast the filming of a scene live on Justin.tv.
After playing a sold-out concert in New York one August evening, the three Jonas Brothers piled into a limo and headed to a record store in Times Square. Fans mobbed the teen rockers as they bought the group’s new album, which Hollywood Records had just released.
Every second was captured on camera and shown live on JonasBrothers.tv, the band’s channel on Justin.tv.
More than 110,000 people tuned in for at least part of the broadcast and chatted away in online forums.
“To have the capability of going straight to the fans and communicate with them is the best thing ever,” said the eldest sibling, Kevin Jonas, 19.
Mark Sacks, a new-media agent at William Morris Agency, said online live video wouldn’t replace more traditional programming but could help entertainers better interact with their audiences.
“At the end of the day, we all still want to see high-quality entertainment,” he said. “This does not disrupt that. It just creates another way for people to connect.”
Live video taps into the contemporary freewheeling zeitgeist, Justin.tv Chief Executive Michael Seibel said.
“You no longer need to imagine what it would be like to witness the protests in Myanmar, camp out at Burning Man or even spend a day in the life of an up-and-coming Parisian fashion designer,” he said.