Uncle Al Wants You

To help him revolutionize TV. (But he won't say exactly how.)

The ad for “The Best New Job in TV” featured two poster children of cool: a young man with a tattooed arm clutching a video camera, and a young woman wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with a paraphrased version of the George Orwell epigram: “In a time of universal deceit, to tell the truth is a revolutionary act.” The symbolism was designed to be hip and to appeal to young people who might be interested in working for INdTV, the forthcoming television network from entrepreneur Joel Hyatt and former Vice President Al Gore.

Last May, Gore and Hyatt paid a reported $70 million for Canadian cable news network Newsworld International, which reaches about seventeen million US homes. Their stated goal was to create programming by and for the demographically desirable 18- to 34-year-old market. Gore pledged that INdTV will be apolitical, and is not intended to be an ideological counterpoint to the right-wing slant of Fox News. “This is not going to be a liberal network or a Democratic network or a political network in any way, shape, or form,” he said at the time.

Instead, INdTV aspired to something even more revolutionary — to counteract the purported impact of media consolidation by handing control of the airwaves to a creatively empowered new generation.

Until recently, the network said little more about its programming goals, but Gore’s apparent interest in the onetime MTV video diary Unfiltered offered an early clue into INdTV’s approach. Unfiltered was real grassroots television, a program whose producers selected its story ideas based upon calls from actual viewers. INdTV planned to take this approach one step further. The network’s call for applicants suggested that it would take young people with no experience in television, put them through a four-week training course, give them their own camera and laptop, and then air their stories.

This seemingly revolutionary prospect inspired hordes of young people to apply for a job as one of the network’s fifty “digital correspondents.” INdTV began a national search last August through film schools and postings on Web sites such as Craigslist, MediaBistro.com, and Filmmaker.com. The ads solicited “compelling real-life stories, created by and for young adults … a broad spectrum of programs from magazine to documentary to reality to comedy and satire.”

INdTV’s method of recruiting these correspondents was every bit as revolutionary as its programming aspired to be. It set up a video-enabled Web log and created an online forum where applicants could supposedly have two-way dialogues with recruiters. The word “transparency” was used to describe this effort, and the idea was to empower the applicants by providing them with extra information about the hiring process. This revolutionary new paradigm in hiring would complement INdTV’s revolutionary approach to programming.

But this supposedly open process revealed surprisingly little about what the network was seeking. Even today, after an almost-six-month recruiting process and about three months before it originally intended to begin broadcasting, the network is still remarkably mum about its programming plans. If the way it set out to reinvent the hiring process is any example, INdTV’s efforts to revolutionize television itself could be messy and disappointing.

One thing is certain; the network certainly has yet to make many friends among the 18- to 34-year-old demographic.

The choice of San Francisco as INdTV’s home base reflected the desire of its founders to stand out from the crowd. Last July, Hyatt told San Francisco Magazine: “We’re looking for where our permanent home will be, and San Francisco is on the short list. I don’t believe we need to be in New York or Los Angeles. We’re going to be different.” By October, INdTV had permanently settled into a vacant office at 118 King Street, originally designed to be the headquarters for ETrade.

Hyatt would serve as chief executive officer and Gore was to be chairman. Hyatt soon hired his former Stanford University student Jamie Daves, who has been active in Democratic Party youth outreach and served as an assistant to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Clinton administration. Daves in turn recruited the two people apparently most responsible for the network’s unorthodox recruitment process: Joanna Drake Earl, a former digital media consultant credited by one source with conceiving the INdTV video blog, and Michael Rosenblum, who was engaged to locate and train the network’s army of inexperienced digital correspondents.

More than anyone else, Rosenblum became the keeper of INdTV’s revolutionary programming vision. An industry veteran who has worked for CBS and New York Times TV, and consulted to broadcasters such as Oxygen Media, Voice of America, and a host of overseas companies, Rosenblum has made a career of creating storytellers out of journalists who had never before touched a camera.

Rosenblum said Gore was keenly interested in his ideas about the “democratization of television,” which he articulated in the mission statement for DV Dojo, his New York video training school. The phrase soon became an INdTV buzzword. “In the beginning, they just wanted to talk about the ‘democratization of television,'” Rosenblum said in a December interview. “Al had a lot of input in the beginning. He really dug the democratization of TV thing and made it his own.” Rosenblum was retained as a consultant to identify and train the digital correspondents at one of his immersive boot camps.

Even the process of applying for a job would be different at INdTV. The application hinted that a documentary might one day be made with the videos submitted by applicants. “We want to document our recruitment process and may use the material we collect from you to tell the story of our network launch,” read a note on the release that all applicants had to submit. The release gave INdTV the right to use jobseekers’ videos and even their likenesses.

The network’s Web site became the focal point of all the action. INdTV called it a video blog because the written postings by employees — mainly journalist Gotham Chopra, the son of spiritual guru Deepak Chopra — were supplemented by occasional video postings. These communications were meant to keep applicants abreast of the recruitment process and to explain the INdTV mission. Before and after submitting their applications, visitors to the site could read the text, watch the videos, and write their own responses to posts by staff or one another.

Chopra became the public face of the recruitment effort. Although it is not entirely clear what his official role was — that is, whether he was an employee of INdTV or just its telegenic spokesman — he contributed to the network’s young and hip image.

By early October 2004, Chopra was ever-present, writing blogs, posting videos, and responding to messages posted by applicants. When the first wave of submissions trickled in, he posted a video of himself, casually seated backward in a chair, explaining that many of these samples were all wrong. He didn’t want newsreaders; he wanted “edgy” and “in your face” programming. And he clearly wanted more of it, urging readers to tell their “cool friends” about it.

“Within this tangled hierarchy of television, we do indeed have a chance to establish a network that really does retain an independent voice,” Chopra wrote, reiterating the network’s mission. “This is at the core of our vision for this network and one that most of you — based on the applications Jamie and Michael are pouring through — have bought into. We are facing a giant challenge in trying to carve out our niche. It’s exciting and intimidating, invigorating and also bemusing in how we are going to tackle this.”

Meanwhile, Rosenblum posted an inspirational video of one of his boot camps. “People with ideas and passions, who are willing to seize cameras and edit and create what is in their hearts and put it on the screen,” he wrote on the blog. “This is really what this revolution is about. It is about a free press. It is about authorship. It is about creativity. In the 1950s, Mao said power flowed from the barrel of a gun. Today, power flows from the lens of a camera.”

All of this sounded great to many members of the generation to whom INdTV was designed to appeal. Former Tech TV intern Tim Lang applied for a job as a digital correspondent because he was inspired by the new network’s promise. “I’ve always been fascinated with stories and with what makes them good and bad,” wrote Lang, a writer by avocation and baker by trade who described himself simply as a twentysomething Bay Area resident. “When INdTV promised no experience needed, just passion and a willingness to learn, I thought, ‘That’s me!'”

To applicant Chuck Olsen, a filmmaker and Web developer, it seemed like a dream job. Olsen, 33, recalled being excited about INdTV. “It’s the only job I would want,” he said in an interview. Dissatisfied with his job in public broadcasting, he sent in the required headshot, three program ideas, video sample of the applicant, and optional video work samples. He later described his application video as a “goofy thing,” where he introduced himself and included a “secondhand Al Gore impersonation.”

But not everyone was seduced by the vision. Crescent Diamond, a seasoned producer of the independent program Street Level TV, did not apply, despite thinking that it sounded like a perfect job for her in many ways. “The idea of revolutionary TV is interesting,” she said. “That why it’s so intriguing. It’s like a dream that could not be real.”

But the 27-year-old Oakland resident said that although she considered applying, she was turned off because the INdTV Web site had no information. It was true; the site did not provide any details about the position, such as hours, pay, location, or how much independence producers would have. Nor was it clear how much say correspondents would have regarding what they were producing; there was some hint they might be working in teams.

“A professional organization should have a good Web site with information about what they are doing,” Diamond said in a recent interview. She felt that the lack of real information made the application “exploitive.” “It feels like a game,” she said. “I know what it’s like to be a video professional — you don’t apply for jobs in an abstract, mysterious way.” Diamond also said that she doubted that a corporate network would ultimately provide the type of anticorporate coverage that she is interested in doing.

But with Gore ostensibly at the helm, plenty of other applicants remained optimistic about the network’s intentions.

By mid-October, postings on the INdTV blog were boisterously disorganized. Applicants chatted back and forth with one another about all manner of topics — from filming music festivals to sharing experiences with racism — all the while asking recruiters a variety of questions about the network. The recruiters occasionally posted messages about how exciting it was to be democratizing television, and how bleary-eyed they all were from looking at all the fabulous videos. They even posted a couple of applicant videos that they liked.

Chopra, like all good bloggers, waxed poetic about one of his favorite subjects — in this case the Boston Red Sox. To some, it seemed an odd choice of topics for creating more interest in media for the mavericks. One applicant, Tim Lang, wrote on the blog that the handsome Chopra’s commentary somehow seemed to spark the interest of the Web site’s female contingent. Women increasingly posted comments containing winks and exclamation points, flirtation clearly directed at Chopra and the recruiters.

For all the network’s talk about transparency, the public hiring process did not make its intentions any clearer, and some would-be correspondents started asking public questions about its intentions. In mid-October, several applicants, spurred on by messages at the INdTV site, began chatting on an “UNofficial INdTV forum” set up at the rollerblading Web site Geekrolling.com by an applicant known as Adrian. They discussed the concept of “independent media,” planned meetups, and eventually discussed ways of infiltrating INdTV.

Lang became the forum’s official investigator through frustration over all the unanswered questions. Having posted brief bios of the known executives on the unofficial forum, he then went to INdTV to see if he could get them to answer some questions. Although he didn’t manage to get many answers, he did come back with plenty of informed speculation about their activities.

On October 28, Lang posted a message to Chopra in the unofficial forum: “Gotham, I’d like to know what your definition of ‘transparency’ is. I’m beginning to suspect that it’s different than mine. I’d really like to be able to put your words in context. For that matter, I’ve long wondered what you mean when you say ‘storytelling.’ I’d like to throw that question open to the whole Submissions Team. What does storytelling mean to you? What criteria are being used in the application process? What was each portion of the application meant to tell INdTV about the applicant? (I’m looking for video versus essay here.)”

Although the INdTV team was aware of the unofficial forum and Chopra even expressed his approval of it in a posting of his own, the recruiters rarely responded directly. But INdTV did acknowledge how unwieldy its own blog had become, writing, “In the last post about scrolling, etc. … whew — 100 comments — you’re right, this particular blogging tool (blogger) isn’t really suited for that degree of interaction since you can’t suppress previously-read comments or break posts into categories. If anyone knows a hack for that let us know. We’re working on an entire platform of participation tools for the network — and we’re listening to all your feedback — after all, we’re building EVERY aspect of this network WITH you.”

On November 4, the network announced that it had hired two new senior executives. Anne Zehren, the brains behind Teen People magazine, would be the new president of marketing, while David Neuman was president of programming. A former chief programming officer of CNN, executive producer at 20th Century Fox, and president of Channel One and Walt Disney Television, Neuman had a long list of credentials. He had produced Channel One’s daily broadcast, which was distributed to more than twelve thousand schools in the United States, and earned the George Foster Peabody Award for journalistic excellence. He supervised the production of shows such as Home Improvement, Ellen, and The Wonderful World of Disney.

Zehren soon sent applicants “a warm hello” via e-mail and solicited more ideas from them. She asked applicants to come up with a new name for the network. They tossed out names like “Roar,” “iTV,” and “NGTV,” as in Next Generation Television. The network pledged to post some of the best responses and invite feedback. Meanwhile, Neuman introduced himself to the online community with a posting containing a photo of a skydiver from Burning Man, songs by the Scissor Sisters and N.E.R.D. with links to iTunes and Amazon.com, and an arcane quote from the Russian political theorist, activist, and poet Ivan Chtcheglov.

But if Neuman and Zehren were expecting to be welcomed with open arms, they were sadly disappointed. “Well, that was … underwhelming,” Lang wrote on the blog in response to Neuman’s first post. “I must admit, David’s ‘introduction’ looks more like a dodge than an honest attempt at communication. Seems like INdTV is finally gelling into a network long on style and short of content. Hurray!” A poster identified only as dave wrote: “All in all, this has gone from exciting to incredibly depressing. Ann seems like a typical corporate hire and David seems pretentious at best. I was hoping for so much more in the beginning.”

On his own blog, Chuck Olsen encapsulated the view of many toward the new appointments: “Conspiracy theories were born overnight. How can these old media moguls start the new revolution? Was this all an elaborate ruse to steal our ideas for free? Is this whole thing screwed before it ever gets off the ground? Why do they hate us?”

Other applicants also worried about the possible theft of their ideas. After all, the release they had all signed made it clear that any program ideas they submitted would become the property of INdTV, whether or not they were ever given a job.

A few applicants now express chagrin about handing over ideas. One poster, identified as MikeLandris, wrote on the INdTV site, “I’m not impressed. See, here’s the unfair thing. You want people to openly criticize and comment on the process, have us give you ideas for free, and identify ourselves when you’re in a position of power over us, with the ability to give us a job.”

But many others continued to applaud the “openness” and “bravery” of Hyatt and company. However, even this positive feedback soon became a source of disagreement. Some contributors to the INdTV blog began to grouse that the forum itself was just another public-relations stunt for the network. Posters who were supportive or flattering were seen as “kissing ass.”

On November 11, CEO Hyatt issued a new decree that posters would no longer be allowed to make anonymous commentary. Some visitors to the Web site agreed, and insisted that the naysayers be pushed out. Some postings were removed, but INdTV insisted that it was only the ones that didn’t adhere to a “standard of accountability.” One applicant griped that the supposedly open application process was becoming “downright sleazy,” and another, Sam Graham-Felsen, worried that anonymity would contribute to the forum’s “self-serving monologue” replete with “oneupmanship and sycophancy.” “Things have already been heading in this direction, and I fear that banning anonymity will only exacerbate this problem.” The near obsession of the INdTV fans was decribed by Kenny Mann as “an unhealthy sort of frantic despair.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the communication from INdTV was notable for its lack of actual content. While saying nothing about the network’s structure, programming ideas, or the details of the position, Chopra announced on November 10 that the recruitment effort was taking longer than expected. A second posting from Hyatt on November 12 suggested that things were not going as planned. He thanked the applicants for providing their “ideas and feedback,” and said that “some of what we are hearing from you is helping us to refine our vision and goals. A little bit of your feedback is challenging us to rethink some of our preliminary notions.” Then he conceded: “Seeking input from anyone and everyone on how to build a new television network is an imperfect and messy process. But we are committed to continuing to seek the help and involvement of our audience and to learn from it. We believe that by doing so, INdTV will not only democratize the media but also improve it. We know we will make many mistakes along the way.”

Ten days later, INdTV apparently concluded that the hiring process itself had all been a mistake. On November 22, 2004, INdTV very publicly turned the lights off. It shut down the blog and announced on its Web site that it was focusing on developing a “robust freelance production platform” that would allow people to send in their own videos to be aired on the network.

Speculation on other blogs was that no digital correspondents were being hired at all, and that the network’s everyday contributors would all be freelancers instead. Given what little the network said about its plans, that conjecture seemed warranted: “We have come to believe that a network that seeks to share a diversity of perspectives cannot just rely on a small elite to represent the thousands or millions beyond,” INdTV said on the site. “Instead, to truly democratize television, we need to give all of you the opportunity to share — and air — your stories.”

Behind the scenes, Rosenblum had been poring over nearly two thousand application videos, which he later described as “astonishing in their quality.” He said he was “extremely impressed” with the applicant videos he saw, which contained “lots of radically interesting ideas” enabled by the percolation of professional video production techniques into the general population. But on the same day the blog was shut down, Rosenblum’s work also came to a screeching halt.

“They told me to leave,” he said in a subsequent interview. Rosenblum said he doesn’t know why he was dismissed, simply that suddenly the blog came down and he was out the door. Jamie Daves also was fired on that day, a network source said. Daves did not respond to requests for an interview.

The buzz on the unofficial forum was that everything had suddenly changed with the hiring of Neuman and Zehren. Although dissatisfaction with the recruitment process clearly predated the two of them, the unofficial forum soon concluded that Rosenblum was the good cop and Neuman was the bad one. Speculation among applicants was that Rosenblum’s dismissal stemmed from a conflict between him and Neuman, although Rosenblum later said that he’d had almost nothing to do with Neuman.

Speculation was that the new executives wanted to hire different people than those chosen by Rosenblum and Daves — people more “polished” and “professional.” Tim Lang later wrote of Neuman, “From the day he was hired, everything changed. Everything INdTV stood for went out the window.” On December 10, there was speculation in the San Francisco Business Times that the entire recruitment effort had been nothing more than a marketing ploy.

Shortly after the blog was shut down, applicants received a wave of rejection letters. Aspiring San Francisco documentarian Josh Wolf, who received one of the letters, complained that it was “tactless” to send them out the day before Thanksgiving. He said that INdTV’s receipt of nearly six thousand ideas free of charge from applicants “borders on criminal,” but could be redeemed if it does hire correspondents.

The Geekrolling Web site soon experienced technical problems, and went black for a while, but disappointed applicants merely migrated to other forums. Lang started his own blog, trls.blogspot.com, which mainly consisted of reports about INdTV. At Interject.org, Adrian summed up the history of the whole affair from a decidedly pragmatic perspective. “In October, Mr. Gore and his business partner, Joel Hyatt, hired a new programming chief, David Neuman, formerly of NBC, CNN and Channel One, who quickly realized that the Gen-Y brigade concept was more trouble than it was worth,” he wrote. “Subsequently, Mr. Hyatt had to put down an insurrection on the blog: ‘Given the unexpected volume of responses, we probably in hindsight began this recruiting effort a little too early and it is taking us longer than we thought to process the applications,’ [Hyatt] wrote. ‘I apologize for this. But we’re thinking hard about ways to leverage this incredible pool of creative talent.'” Adrian added in jest, “Like maybe turning them all into unpaid interns and hiring experienced professionals?”

Meanwhile, amidst the bitterness and sense of broken dreams, the energy generated by the INdTV drama had created a movement of its own. Josh Wolf started a collective of videomakers known as the Rise Up Network (Lists.RiseUp.net/www/info/riseupnetwork). Some applicants decided, as Olsen put it: “We don’t need them. We are the revolution.” And for those who refused to give up their dreams of a real TV revolution, Rosenblum emerged as a kind of messiah.

On December 18, would-be INdTV correspondent Maya Kuttan wrote Wolf’s collective that she and another former applicant had contacted Rosenblum privately, and were attempting to organize a new group. She encouraged all her fellow applicants to send her their work, so she could help Rosenblum fulfill his original mission. Although Rosenblum was still officially under contract with INdTV, Kuttan wrote that he had the contacts to shop their work around to MTV and the Turner Network. “I just got off the phone with Michael Rosenblum, who is no longer with INdTV, but can’t contractually do anything new until January. … Now I know you guys are on your way to doing this entirely independently — but Michael [Rosenblum] is a man with connections who wants to see this thing happen. … If you are interested, we should start organizing. If you could e-mail your name, résumé and a brief statement for why you want to do this/why you think this revolution should occur, I will make sure Michael gets them.”

Many of the people once inspired by INdTV are now waiting to see what Rosenblum does next. For his part, he declined to discuss his future plans, but called INdTV’s apparent turnaround a tragedy. “They were at the cutting edge of the technological revolution,” he said. “They walked away.”

Rosenblum believes a television revolution is brewing, “with or without INdTV.” People can now shoot and edit their own videos “at the same cost of writing on a word processor,” and he believes this revolution will spawn a movement toward nonlinear programming, as everyday people tell their own stories in their own voices. As for INdTV’s apparent intention to use freelancers instead of fulltime correspondents, Rosenblum was unimpressed. “People need jobs,” he said.

The network finally revealed its first programming plans in a December 22 e-mail. It was a call to freelancers for short, one-to-five-minute video segments for which they would be paid $200, if aired. There was no talk of digital correspondents, but the e-mail did hold out the promise of a more formal relationship with the network in the future. “The sooner you show us more of your potential,” it read, “the sooner we can engage you with more formal assignments.”

Here were the network’s ideas:

Citizen Reporter: Pick a news story and tell it the way it should be told. No teleprompter, no static standups, no local-news hair. Honesty and humor will go a long way. This is our chance to unwind the spin.

“Citizen Reviewer: No junkets. No premieres, no parties, no perks. Pick a movie, a CD, a video game, or another product that you’re passionate about and show us why. Go ahead and weave in scenes and snippets from the media in question. And if it sucks — tell us.

“State of the Union: Give us your wisest, most irreverent State of the Union address. We’re talking improvised podium, pomp, politics, personality, and of course, most importantly: sound bites.

“That’s F*&^#ed Up: Is there something unfathomable going on around the corner or down the street? Some state of affairs that just doesn’t make sense? You can rant all you want — it just better be good TV.

“INdTV Paparazzi: Get someone famous to opine on something substantive. (“Hey, Paris — what did you think of Rumsfeld’s quote on the armored Humvee shortage in Iraq?”) Or ask a serious figure about something not-so-substantive. Note: Don’t be a stalker.

“All Nighter: What goes on in your town between 2 and 5 a.m.? We’re looking for truly unique stuff, anywhere from the local late-night diner to the woods down by the creek.

“Addicted: What’s your addiction? Food? A fetish? A relationship? Do you lead a double life? This is first-person: time to confess.

“INdTV Is the New Black: Are you a trendspotter? A cool-hunter? Take off your trucker cap (or put it back on) and show us the next big thing in clothes, culture, style, or slang.

“Inspired: We said we’re going to be transformative. Show us the way. Show us the story of someone (maybe yourself) who is inspiring and heroic. Overcoming tragedy, learning lessons, achieving greatness — all good by us.

“Wild Card: If you’ve got some brilliant video, either something that’s already in the can or something you’d love to try, then by all means go for it. But remember: It’s got to be really, really, really ridiculously good.”

It all seemed reminiscent of something Chopra had once written on the blog, in perhaps the only instance in which the network had actually shared a programming idea with any of the applicants. “My cab driver (on the way to the airport in New York) had a great idea I thought,” Chopra wrote. “He wants a commercial that would ask, ‘Who would Osama vote for? How about Saddam or our new favorite villain Zarqawi?’ Or maybe we take someone that we universally take as — ya’know not all there, say, Paris Hilton — and find out who she is voting for? How about Mike Tyson? Scott Peterson is not so likable. Is he a Bushy? OJ? I like this idea. I think it could be funny. I think it could end up on INdTV. Alas, the cab driver didn’t seem interested in the job.”

Indeed, the cab driver behind one of the revolutionary new ideas that would democratize television in the 21st century was apparently too savvy to get personally involved in the process.

INdTV officials generally declined to comment for this story, although Zehren did say in a brief December 21 interview that the network still intended to interview applicants for the position of digital correspondent. She said executives had not picked a new network name, and remained tightlipped about their plans in that regard. At press time, the network was still operating under the name of INdTV. David Neuman did not respond to an interview request.

But the story is not over for some of the applicants, who still talk about INdTV on other forums. Some are considering sending in videos, and others are talking about connecting with Rosenblum. Others, such as San Francisco resident Darren McKeeman, think the paltry $200 fee for freelance contributions is far too little. McKeeman, 36, believes INdTV is just trying to get content for free. “They already have a subscriber base of twenty million since they bought an existing channel,” he said. “There’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to sell their ad space, unless they just are bad at selling ads. Asking potential employees to ‘contribute’ stories is just wrong. They should pay people. They’re just trying to get their content for free.”

On January 11, Lang posted an update on his own blog mythologizing his latest trek to INdTV to get some of his questions answered. He referred to the network as “The Island of Dr. Vague,” and reported that while he did speak to staff members, the answers he got were largely uninformative. He did manage, however, to get back his application video.

Despite INdTV’s secrecy about its activities, information still leaks out here and there. On January 18, a writer named Patrick posted the following news on Interject.org: “Hey there — on a semirelated note — I just got a call from Ezra [Neuman’s secretary] to say that they have changed their model and are not planning on hiring anyone else at this point, but ‘might’ be toward the end of summer when they get up to speed for broadcast. I suggested that they consider renovating their license agreement to offer a short-term exclusive availability (60 or 120 days) and that ownership remains with the creators. We’ll see what happens, although unless you have scuba experience, don’t hold your breath.”

Today, INdTV.tv is a bare-bones Web site that bears almost no traces of its former self. The video blogs have been deleted, the edgy personality is gone, and it’s hard to even imagine things were ever any other way.

Writer Amrita Sidhu applied for the position of digital correspondent in 2004. She did not get an interview or make any contact with INdTV staff members during the process.

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