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Cafe Confidential, the Best of the Bad

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Steven Bochco and Metacafe have certainly hit their marks in developing the new channel Cafe Confidential (see previous coverage). Rather than taking a high-handed approach to telling stories online, they’ve looked back into the past. “Cafe Confidential becomes sort of like an electronic campfire where people sit around and they swap stories,” Bochco, the acclaimed television producer, told me over the phone yesterday, in a simile he also expressed to Alex Pham of the LA Times.

The topics themselves are generically universal, such as “my first time” tales like the video above. Which makes perfect sense, and even elicited a confession from contributor Steve Bryant in his review at Reel Pop. While there is certainly a purity and minimalist sensibility to the format, I think that in feeding the webcam confessional beast, Bochco is only accelerating the trend toward what I’ve come to call the ‘post-literate society.’ A de-evolution of communication, if you will.

If you’ve made the obvious connection that I am a writer, and therefore have chosen a horse in the race between text, audio and video, you wouldn’t be completely off-base. And while I’m fully aware of a philosophical distrust of the written word that can be traced back to Socrates, not to mention a vibrant oral tradition that preserved as mythology the vast depth of human history, I’m still Bothered with a capital B.

To his credit, Bochco is the first to admit that he wasn’t trying to achieve high art. “They’re not complex, they don’t have the layering and the structuring or the artifice of a contrived entertainment or scripted drama,” he said of the stories on Cafe Confidential.

But you can say that about so much of media today, and not only online. Cops and The Real World presaged this era of ‘reality’ programming. But of course, there is a layer of artifice built into all of it. For Cafe Confidential, the subjects were gleaned in the standard reality show method of pulling attractive people off the street. “We recruited them from environments where young people hang out, whether it was malls or movie theaters,” said Bochco. The interviews on camera were then edited down to between one- and two-minute anecdotes. Users who submit videos will be a self-selecting group, and will introduce their own process, but the results will presumably be very similar.

My question is whether we should really be rewarding this yearning for ‘spontanaeity’ and ‘reality?’ For instamedia with little compositional thought behind it? It is certainly a format that’s proven itself as broadly appealing, and nobody makes much money on content that isn’t popular.

But if the medium is still the message, the message here is that initial impressions and uninhibited reactions are what’s valuable, that the embarrassing reveal and inevitable eye roll is what we’re after. Schadenfreude over substance, reaction over reevaluation.

I’m not saying I’m immune by any means, and some of the clips are certainly entertaining. I’ll be the first person to admit that there are more than a few guilty pleasures in the media I consume (and produce, for that matter). But when a man of considerable talents such as Mr. Bochco looks at the web, sums up the possibilities, and comes up with webcam confessionals, I think it says something about the nature of Metacafe’s 18 million viewers worldwide (according to CEO Erick Hachenburg) and the web at large.

Call me overly optimistic about human nature, but I had some hope that the online medium would spur an evolution into entertainment that was more insightful. That it would become like a giant Algonquin Round Table, rather than a Carnival Freak Show. Which just goes to show how truly stupid I am, and how much smarter and more realistic Bochco and Metacafe are. Thankfully, there’s room for it all online. I can now crawl back to my unprofitable niche where people bloviate in a stream of type with a dry wit and knowing air to remind my friends that no one wants to be improved, just entertained.

8 Responses to “Cafe Confidential, the Best of the Bad”

  1. susan Rasanen

    I think Steven Bocho,s “C.C.”, is “great”. It,s fun to watch. If your bored, it,s the perfect site, to sit down with. It picks you up, and has something for everyone. There, s adorable animals, funny stories, some are hilarious, and “pretty” ladies, for the men out there, and some of the women, too. Ha! ha!, It,s just great fun, and I think it,s “wonderful”, that he,s trying something differen,t that everyone can enjoy, with a smile. Kudos 2 u Steven B., and keep up the good, work.

  2. Steve Bryant

    Am I the only one who thinks Cafe Confidential is kinda cool? Although the confessions are PG-13, and although you can find much more salacious fare distributed across the Web, the stories are titillating in a way that MTV’s The Real World (overproduced to the point of, well, fiction) hasn’t been in years.

    Everybody says the Web is amenable to short form cinema. Well, this is vérité as one-night stand.

    Maybe the only thing new is Bochco’s imprimatur. But it’s hard to think he could go wrong betting on sex. After all, Eisner and co. are doing it with Vuguru’s “Prom Queen,” and don’t tell me R.J. Cutler isn’t banking on teen sexuality for the “Facebook Diaries.”

  3. Zell is absolutely right. Bochco puts a hour or two into the Internet and becomes relevant by coming down to MetaCafe’s typically juvenile standards. The future will be the well-produced content and that’s where Bolt will now play.

    Jackson, what a killer missive. Bochco’s first effort is shocking given who he is in television history. It’s almost as if Metacafe forced him to do something pathetically juvenile.

    Metacafe seeks legitamacy but their first effort is a name-brand version of their softcore sensibility.

  4. In a nutshell, we all expected more of Mr. Bochco. He gets to say he’s now producing internet television (wow, how hip and leading edge, in the circles he travels in)…but, he hasn’t devoted an ounce of time or effort in this direction.

    Using this medium to tell stories, for the vast range of niche audience/communities out there is what we’re waiting for…people still like stories, it’s getting them funded that’s the issue. As soon as someone produces story-driven content for this medium and makes money (not uses the medium as a glorified showreel to land a job; or as a platform to drive audiences to “old” tv shows).

    There have been hints of this with a couple of shows in the past few months (alamoheightsSA being the most ambitious) — the forthcoming Eisner-backed series (“Prom” something) looks like a solid effort (compared to Bochco’s).

    There are going to be some “professional” content producer announcements in this space soon — new alliances from “old” storytellers (who have tired of the Network deals). I’d watch for that, just as much as watching for the 20-somethings to pop up and turn this into a business.

  5. I think what may be happening is the equivalent of the surge in authors following the ability to mass produce printed media. The last century was one in which the masses gained a kind of visual art literacy (reading). The creation of the art was still in the hands of a few well guarded professionals. The webcam revolution is just the beginning of the public learning to be literate at the video author level (writing).

    Let’s not forget the penny dreadful first steps of motion pictures. For a while things are going to be ugly. What we need is the online equivalent of Chaplin. When that creator finally shows up, UGC will hopefully get a much needed jolt and the results will be a new crop of Capra and Welles caliber online creators.

    This sounds pie in the sky now. But, it may happen sooner than analysts think due to the link between Moore’s Law and digital video production. Film had no Moore’s Law. Expect things to move at an exponential pace rather than the typical incremental.