Politics’ video game

A shot of a dark bedroom. Soothing music. A little girl and boy slumber easily. It’s 3 a.m. when, yes . . .

. . . the phone rings.

Think you know who’s going to be answering that call? Don’t be so sure.

“Ghostbusters,” says Annie Potts.

That’s one of the many alternate endings to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s original late-night phone call commercial that you can find on YouTube. Other interpretations have the call being answered by Bill Clinton (he’s expecting a call from the pizza delivery guy), “Sesame Street’s” Martian Yip Yip puppets and Alfred, Batman’s butler.


You can see the other candidates’ red-phone mash-ups online too. Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign did its own riff on the red-phone ad (“In a dangerous world, it’s judgment that matters”). And last week, Sen. John McCain gave the genre a go, same ringing phone, but “this time, it’s an economic crisis.” Instead of explaining what your sleeping children have to do with the economy, the McCain ad semi-dementedly concludes: “It’s 3 a.m.: Time for a president who’s ready.”

It’s the hottest election in recent memory, and the first of the YouTube era, so no wonder political video is whizzing around faster than you can tape your cat mouthing “superdelegate.” Bedroom producers, the campaigns themselves and everyone in between is using online video to make a point, a profit, both, or neither.

Though videos like Jack Nicholson’s popular pro-Hillary video, “Jack and Hill,” made with help from Rob Reiner, can score big on YouTube, you don’t need to be a celeb or a “Saturday Night Live” writer to get noticed. Ben Relles put himself on the map when he and two partners brought the world “Obama Girl,” the candidate’s sultry, singing follower who rings in millions of page views every time she bobs onto the computer screen. (Her first video, “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama,” was nominated Tuesday for a Webby Award.) Relles’ fledgling was bought by the Web TV company Next New Networks last October and now has four full-time employees.

Steve Grove, YouTube’s head of news and politics, said videos in that category had seen a “lurch forward” in popularity in the last year, and the last month has been no exception. A March 24 CBS News segment showing that Clinton had misremembered the details of her 1996 trip to Bosnia became YouTube’s most-viewed video that week, no small feat considering the site gets hundreds of thousands of new uploads every day. The week before that, those Fox News videos of Obama’s fiery longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, accounted for five of the top 12 political videos on the site, and the Obama speech that controversy engendered has been watched on YouTube more than 4 million times, the most ever for a video from a presidential campaign.

‘Idea-driven’ videos

In two adjacent office bungalows in Culver City, Emmy-winning producer and progressive filmmaker Robert Greenwald has set up a kind of online video war room. Brave New Films, a next-generation studio stocked with high-tech digital production equipment and a young staff of Web-wise editors and coordinators, can crank out content on a dime.

The goal is to make bite-sized political video that is professional quality and “idea-driven,” Greenwald said, “not just throw another blog on the fire and stoke it higher.”

In addition to broadening its outreach by partnering with organizations like MoveOn, Brave New Films attaches petitions to many of its videos. “It’s not enough to get people to watch our stuff. We must move them to the next step,” Greenwald said. About 200,000 people signed a petition attached to his “Fox Attacks Obama: Part II” video, a montage of Obama-centered footage from Fox in which network commentators call Obama a “halfrican” and say of a response to one Obama speech, “that kind of spontaneous affection, Chairman Mao only dreamed of.” The petition, which called on the mainstream media to “reject Fox’s smears of Obama, not parrot them,” was delivered to ABC and NBC offices at the end of March.

Speaking of the conversation between the Web and big media, CBS News reporter Sharyl Atkisson didn’t realize she had a story on her hands until a colleague e-mailed her a link to 12-year-old footage of the Bosnia trip that she herself had reported on, which had been posted on several days earlier. “I clicked on a link and was stunned to see it was the same trip,” Atkisson said in an interview. Her team dug up CBS’ archived footage and had a segment questioning Clinton’s account on that night.

This back and forth continued the next day, when the Web crowd took Atkisson’s segment and ran with it. Various media outlets had noted the dubiousness of Clinton’s account, but the CBS segment gave the story a shot of testosterone. The viral reaction was so great that in a follow-up report the next night, CBS even mentioned the YouTube clip of their own segment, noting it had scored more than 1 million views and had “spread all over the Internet.”

But it’s leaner, independent Web operations, such as Brave New Films and TPM Media, parent company of, that are setting the pace for old media stalwarts like CBS News. Both Greenwald and journalist Joshua Micah Marshall, the founder of TPM, who recently won a Polk Award for the site’s investigations into the firings of eight U.S. attorneys, produce work that tends to strike a serious note. Marshall produces a four-times-weekly video blog in which he summarizes the site’s reporting on issues of the day in a real-person voice (i.e., sans the usual network news bombast).

Obama Girl returns

Political satire is flourishing too. Obama Girl, played by actress Amber Lee Ettinger, has become a hit factory for Barely Political. In her latest star turn, Ettinger is graphically inserted into a coffee-shop booth with Clinton, pleading with her to find her inner Obama Girl. “Can you see it’s hopeless?” Obama Girl sings breathily. “It’s becoming Obama Nation. Is there any chance you’ll back off, so he’ll get the nomination?”

Even solo video-makers working at home have a shot at a real audience. Lee Stranahan, a graphic artist for Access Hollywood who also makes his own videos, lucked into a paying gig with Greenwald’s Brave New Films after a campaign-related comedy video of his struck a chord. His November video riffed on the news that Rudolph W. Giuliani had spent taxpayer money to protect his former mistress, now wife, Judith Nathan. “I ended up doing it in five hours. I sent it to TPM -- I was an avid reader -- and to one or two other sites I liked.” Marshall liked it and posted it. The video ended up with 117,000 views on YouTube and more elsewhere.

Political video creators agree that there’s no recipe for viral success but that having a group of loyal viewers doesn’t hurt. “If we post a video on our front page, we are pretty much guaranteed that about 10,000 people will view it,” Marshall said. If it works as viral video, “it will take off.” While Fox clips like the Rev. Wright segments go viral on YouTube regularly, independently produced right-leaning video is harder to find. Greenwald pointed out that the right “does have clear overt control of certain primary media -- Fox and the radios” so has less need for indie outlets. What’s more, he suggested, “they’re much more top-down. . . . You can’t drive a top-down message on the Internet,” because videos are re-cut for response videos.

Marshall added that “the resurgence of progressive media has come online, largely, I think, because progressive media was so dead in the water for so long” that they had to find a new platform.

Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, who runs a vlog called Hot Air, also attributed the gap to the more contentious Democratic primary. “There’s not much going on on the Republican side,” Malkin said. “So it’s natural that there’s this disparity where most of the videos you’ve seen are targeting Democrats.”

And so: Ghostbusters. It’s not the campaigns or their surrogates that are producing the dominant election images anymore. If you miss the likes of Willie Horton and the Swift Boat crew, they’re easy to find on YouTube.


Times staff writer Maria Russo contributed to this column.