Cafe Confidential, the Best of the Bad

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.

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