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What is Civic Video? A Center for Civic Media brainstorm with Howard Blumenthal

Howard Blumenthal knows a few things about TV. His father produced Concentration, a famously long-lived game show on NBC, and Blumenthal grew up, in part, on the set.

Concentration, with Hugh Downs, 1968

Blumenthal went into the family business, working on an early cable network called QUBE. The ambitious network was ultimately a commercial failure, but it was deeply influential on the medium, spinning off a music channel that ultimately became MTV and a children’s channel that became Nickelodeon. Blumenthal went on to produce MTV’s “Remote Control”, a charmingly psychotic game show, and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, an award-winning children’s program.

Remote Control, from 1989. Less award winning than Carmen Sandiego.

More recently, Blumenthal has been experimenting with the interface between broadcast and the internet, first with online retailer CDNow, and now with MindTV. MindTV is an independent television station based in Philadelphia and New York. You won’t find Sesame Street on Mind – they’re independent from PBS – but you will find original five-minute video pieces produced on topics of civic interest, like the electoral college or population growth.

Blumenthal came to the Center for Civic Media to talk about these experiments in civic television, and his hopes for MindWorks, a new production company focused on the idea of building “Sesame Street” for grownups, intelligent, watchable content to help people become more effective and powerful civic actors.

When Blumenthal started MindTV, taking over a struggling Philadelphia station, he bet heavily on the ability of his community to produce television content. Through community partners, staff producers and a set of “boot camps” designed to help the community produce their own media, they started creating five minute segments of video. Roughly 60% are produced by the MindTV staff, 30% come from community partners and about 10% are viewer created. Unfortunately, Blumenthal notes, those are usually the weakest contributions.

It requires a surprising amount of time to create 5 minutes of broadcast quality video. Blumenthal shows us data from the production he and his team have done at MindTV. A five minute show takes 20-60 hours to produce, depending on who’s editing the video. Community producers often get frustrated by the timeline and leave projects unfinished… and Blumenthal worries that viewers care mostly about what the content is, now about who produced it. Blumenthal’s vision for MindWorks is less community focused, less altruistic (his term) and more focused on creating and repurposing amazing, civically relevant content that gets distributed online and via broadcast media. In other words, what does Children’s Television Workshop look like when it’s focused on educating and empowering adults, and when it’s born in 2012, not 1967?

This leads to an interesting tension underlying our discussion. Blumenthal knows how to produce compelling television for different audiences, and how to manage a team of professionals to create scripted content. But he’s well aware that influential video content is now being produced via other means: TED Talks, Khan Academy, MIT’s A/V courses. The question is whether this content is compelling enough to audiences to pull them away from the entertainment content available online. Outlining a set of storyboards for a program about taxation and public goods, Blumenthal notes that the challenge is making sure this content is interesting enough to capture our attention: “At the end of the day, it’s us or a rerun of Entourage.”

Not everyone in our group is convinced that Blumenthal is fighting against Entourage – the trick is that he may be fighting against everything from podcasts to Tosh.o to reddit. Oliver Goodenough from Berkman and the Vermont Law School poses the challenge for us – we need to consider how to create content that’s:

– Visually compelling, using the full power of video as a medium
– Civically empowering, enabling viewers to participate in political or community life in a way that they weren’t previously able

The group adds a third criterion:

– Reproducible. For this project to scale, the project needs to be able to add co-conspirators, who produce related material through their own processes. Matt Stempeck references TEDx as a format that TED developed to allow others to reproduce compatible events, sacrificing quality control for reach and spread.

Sarah Wolozin from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies department offers one more wrinkle to consider – some of the most interesting forms of community involvement we’re seeing online don’t come from producing media, but from commenting on it. Sites like LOSTpedia get produced from massive community efforts, even if the community isn’t producing new episodes of the show. We can imagine an engaged and participatory show that is largely professionally produced, but extends itself through meta-layers and commentary from an audience.

Within this frame, we start considering archetypal models that have worked for television shows in the past:

– The circus – a variety show where multiple elements combine into a whole. (While this is certainly a valid format, it’s really a meta-format of formats that follow below.)
– The drama – essentially a stage play, moved to either a four camera or single camera setup
– The talking heads – Two or more people converse, about topics important or banal
– The sermon – A lecture or story, told by a single person
– The troubadour – A performer – a musician, comedian or other – entertains, individually or as a group
– The game – Professionals administer and participants compete at a game with defined rules

We can see these formats being adapted in participatory ways for the Internet. TED talks are sermons, more or less, and by opening up the process through TEDx, they’re significantly more participatory… but as Oliver notes, most aren’t very visual (and those that are, like Hans Rosling’s, tend to be the most popular.) There’s a rise in radio and podcast programming that focus on storytelling, which appears to be a highly reproducible format. Aside from anchor storytelling show, The Moth, we’re seeing science stories told live (The StoryCollider), heartwrenching stories told by amateurs (Story Corps), and sex/drugs stories told live (RISK!). Evidently storytelling is highly reproducible, and many of these stories have real civic impact… but as Blumenthal notes, these stories aren’t very visual, and the attempts to make them so – StoryCorps animations, for instance – may not have been so successful.

Talking Heads on civic issues are easy to find, both on broadcast and on the internet – BloggingHeads.tv takes the format quite literally, and squeezes two headshots into a single screen. And they’re about as visually compelling as two headshots on a screen. Troubadours and Dramas both have the potential to be civically relevant and visually compelling… but they’re highly dependent on writing and performing talent, which makes them harder to reproduce.

Jake Shapiro of PRX, one of the leaders of the rebel alliance of public media, suggests we may be barking up the wrong tree. Instead, we might look at the forms for video production that are organically emerging online and see whether they can be steered towards civic purposes. Jake introduces us to Ray William Johnson, who offers a twice-weekly YouTube show that’s become one of the most popular channels on the service. The shows are generally pretty far from civics lessons – they’re commentary on funny videos posted to YouTube in the past week. The timeliness of the content is part of the appeal – whether or not it gets you to laugh, perhaps you’ll know about Dubstep Cat before all your friends do.

Jake encourages us to think about building a civic Tosh.0, a meta-show that collects civic content from the internet and offers context and commentary. To a certain extent, he argues, that’s what Jon Stewart does with the Daily Show, using cable news and C-SPAN as his inputs. I love this idea, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to make it work for Global Voices.

For instance, Vladimir Putin’s new campaign strategy appears to be using innuendo to connect voting and virginity in a series of truly creepy TV ads. The ads show young women talking about fear of their first time (voting, people, we’re talking about voting) and adult authority figures (a doctor, a fortune teller) encouraging to go with someone they love and trust: i.e., uncle Vlad. Russian activists are striking back with their own ads – an ad from activist Ksenia Sobchak shows her talking about her difficult decision to support Putin… then pans out and shows her duct-taped to a chair. She’s silenced with a duct-tape gag and carried off stage. It’s a commentary on an ad from actress Chulpan Khamatova, who runs a charity to support children with cancer – Putin opponents (and Khamatova’s associates) have speculated that the Khamatova was told that unless she made the ad, state support for the organization would be cut off.

Global Voices could locate these videos, as well as more citizen-made videos, edit, subtitle and offer knowledgeable commentary in a format that output five minute stories for remix into a weekly 30 minute show, or distribution on their own. I’m chastened by Blumenthal’s warning about the difficulties of producing such content in a timely and affordable fashion, but also fascinated by the possibility of connecting global audiences with local videos, much as Tea Leaf Nation, ChinaSMACK and the China Meme Report are doing with image and text content from the Chinese net.

I’m not sure our group helped Blumenthal refine his vision for MindWorks. I know his questions have laid a new challenge in front of me: what’s civic video, and how do we best produce it? We’re nearing a future where producing and sharing video is as easy as producing and sharing pictures… and probably easier than producing and sharing text. If we don’t find a way to solve Blumenthal’s challenge – producing 5 minutes of compelling and important footage in an hour, not 20-60 – we’re going to miss an incredible opportunity to give people insights into community priorities and concerns, locally and globally. I’m hoping Center for Civic Media can take this problem on, both building examples of what civic video could look like and tools to make it easier to produce.

3 thoughts on “What is Civic Video? A Center for Civic Media brainstorm with Howard Blumenthal”

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  2. Ethan:

Before I get into specific comments and observations, a note of thanks to the people who attended our workshop. Special shout-outs to Oliver Goodenough, Peter Shane, Chris Dunne, and Jeff Kunken who have been helping me to figure out what MiND/WORKS ought to be, and how we ought to get there. And, to everyone attended, thanks for taking the time and contributing your ideas to a terrific conversation, one that I hope will be ongoing.

    Generally, my notes match your notes, but I offer these observations:

    I share your concern about the “very real tension” between desire for collective video (which is unlikely to be watched, except in special cases) and professional video (which captures more attention, but requires money and expertise). I remain fascinated by the Carmen Sandiego phenomenon, which cost about $15 million in total, and continues to resonate some 15 years after the program left the air (as recently as yesterday, I received a funny cartoon: http://xkcd.com/1023/) For those who missed the original series, here’s part of a typical episode: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sG7UbCOYwS0

    The discussion about engagement vs. education remains an important question. How do we establish a scope of what we ought to teach, and what people ought to learn? What’s the best way to use the new wider screen real estate to capture attention? What is the baseline for adults learning?

    Another good question: in the 21st century, what does “local” mean? Is it geographically defined? Does it require physical proximity? We travel more than ever before, and we easily skip over distance with digital media (Skype, etc.) Is local your neighborhood block or your area of interest, your city, your nation, or your comfort zone?

    I loved our reverse-engineering of “what works on TV” and “what works on internet video”–this deconstruction has provided me with a simple structure for project development. I promised the group some sort of visual map of these forms in multi-dimensional space. (I’m working on it.) I find the idea of a modern troubadour to be especially appealing, shudder when I realize the truth in the statement, “with Twitter, everybody’s a troubadour”) and hope to meet Erin McKeown of the Berkman Center to discuss ways in which music, storytelling, and authority can be used to capture attention as part of our MiND/WORKS planning.

    Jeff Kunken offered some important ideas that should be discussed further. Certainly, his suggestion that we watch Ray William Johnson on YouTube led to a great discussion about zeitgeist–paying attention to current trends, responding quickly with our media, tagging content, optimizing for search.

    Which led to a favorite topic: “There are things we actually NEED to know. And that’s not necessarily what’s popular this week.”

    Peter Shane led me toward a model of concentric circles in which the innermost circle is “the show” that we produce or somebody else produces, the middle circle is public comment, and the outermost circle is a knowledgable panel of experts offering evaluation and analysis of both the show and the public comment. I suspect this is part of something good, and will use it our development.

    Jake Shapiro’s suggestion of an MIT Format Lab to investigate the ways in which distribution media, technologies, audience interests and entertainment / information formats intersect. If this discussion continues, I want to be a part of it.

    Several additional components that must be discussed, developed, delivered, etc.: video hyperlinking, making it possible to jump from an idea in one video to an idea in other, and also a backstory bible that allows a brief discussion about Syria to become a deeper personal investigation based upon reliable / accessible information.

    Next steps? Yes, I know, I have a model to deliver. As any good creative professional, I’ve already conceptualized beyond the model to a possible project that could be a joint effort between the Center for Civic Media, PRX, Global Voices, and MiND/WORKS. Right now, I’m calling it A Day on Earth. What’s it all about? Well, a lot of it grows out of great discussions during the past two weeks with Scott McCloud, everyone who attended our workshop, Jonathan Granoff (who is, quite nobly, attempting to eliminate nuclear weapons from our planet), and our MiND/WORKS team. I believe it could become a global TV/radio/internet collaboration that ties together civic media, participation, high quality information and presentation, and, most important, a way to learn from one another as a global community.

    Which is to say, I sure hope we’ve begun something good with our conversation. And I thank you all for your time.

    Ethan, thanks again for the opportunity.

    To reach me, the email address is hblumenthal@mindtv.org

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