Welcome to their world — all of it

Welcome to their world — all of it

Kim Komenich / San Francisco Chronicle

HIS REALITY: Justin Kan of Justin.tv wears a video camera in March that’s nearly always on.

Lifecasting is changing the way people look at video online.
By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

October 3, 2007

Jody Gnant stops broadcasting when she steps into the shower or goes
places that ban cameras. Other than that, her life is an open video
feed.

Two
months ago, the little-known singer and songwriter from Phoenix wanted
to promote her sound, which she calls a cross between Janis Joplin and
Jan Brady. So Gnant, 29, turned on her webcam and became a so-called
lifecaster, streaming live video of her every move 24/7.

Her biceps are now so strong from carrying her webcam-equipped laptop
that she bowls with a ball that’s 2 pounds heavier. Her self-made
reality show has drawn so much attention to her music career that she
has sold nearly 1,000 CDs and her music video is being featured on
MySpace and in movie theaters.

"I no longer feel alone," she said. "I feel like I have people rooting for me every step of the way."

Call it Reality TV 2.0, the next step in the Internet’s evolution as an entertainment medium.

Gnant
and a growing number of people are turning cameras on themselves and on
their worlds, broadcasting the results in real time.

Lifecasting
comes naturally to today’s youths, who are used to living their lives
in public, posting details of every hookup and breakup on their
Facebook or MySpace pages. Anyone with a laptop, webcam and Internet
connection can do it.

As with any new medium, people are trying
to figure out the rules of etiquette. The budding phenomenon raises
questions about the privacy of people who may not want to appear in the
live streams, as well as copyright implications of, for example,
broadcasting music that’s playing in the background.

But
companies such as Los Angeles-based Ustream, which powers Gnant’s
webcast, and Justin.tv in San Francisco are racing to become the
dominant purveyor of such live, unfiltered programs. In the last year,
the technology behind live streaming has become so cheap that start-ups
such as Mogulus, MyStreams and Veodia can afford to give it away in
hopes that they can make money through the mainstays of TV’s reality
shows: advertising and product placement.

"It’s pretty obvious
to everyone that TV is migrating to the Web," said Paul Graham, a
founding partner of Y Combinator, an investment fund backing Justin.tv.
"This medium will create a bunch of new stars."

Justin.tv gained
notoriety this year when co-founder and namesake Justin Kan, a
24-year-old Yale graduate, strapped a camera to his head and started
streaming every moment of his life over the Internet.

Thousands
of people watch his irreverent, sometimes crude and completely
uncensored life as their chat room conversations scroll beside the
video.

Viewers see the world through Kan’s eyes — except when
he goes to the bathroom (he points the camera toward the ceiling), has
a romantic moment (he takes off the camera) or enters a confidential
business meeting (he mutes it).

The Justin.tv crew has raised
money through venture financing and refined the videorecording
technology to make it lighter and more portable. Kan can now clip his
tiny webcam anywhere.

The small company plans to officially open
its network to all would-be broadcasters today, banking that
lifecasting will siphon viewers from TV by bringing programming to the
people. Justin.tv has grown to nearly 700 channels, generating 1,650
hours of programming a day.

Ustream already features a lineup of
more than 48,000 broadcasters, including young aspiring entertainers
and even presidential hopefuls, who collectively produce 5,000 hours of
programming a day.

John Ham, 29, and Brad Hunstable, 28, West
Point graduates who served in the same Army unit, created Ustream to
connect soldiers overseas with their families. They landed funding and
moved to Los Angeles for their shot at the big time. They opened up the
network to all comers in March.

These start-ups are the latest
contenders in a viral video revolution that has attracted an
enthusiastic following — and some envy — among traditional media
executives who are eager to reach the young people seeking
entertainment on YouTube, MySpace and Facebook.

"Everyone in New
York and Hollywood sees the eyeballs and they want to be involved,"
said Mike Vorhaus, managing director at consulting firm Frank N. Magid
Associates. "The Internet is their HBO, a way to do things new and
differently."

Some observers are skeptical that amateurs will be
able to capitalize much on the trend. Forrester Research analyst James
McQuivey said Internet reality shows were a novel social experiment
that would generate flashes of brilliance and mountains of mediocrity.
But he doesn’t think most people’s unscripted, unedited lives are
compelling enough to woo advertisers or sustain viewer interest.

"As a large-scale business, I don’t see it," he said.

But
the Web is giving birth to new stars. Justin.tv features Naked Cowboy,
a buff Times Square busker who plays guitar for tourists in his
underwear. Ustream had featured a group of actors producing their own
10-part television series, "35."

One of the most popular
lifecasters is Justine Ezarik, the 23-year-old daughter of a coal miner
and a gym teacher, who has gone from freelance graphic designer in
Pittsburgh to Web celeb since launching her iJustine lifecast on
Justin.tv in May. In August, she created a video about her 300-page
iPhone bill that was viewed more than 3 million times in the first 10
days.

With her model good looks, technical savvy and creative streak, Ezarik is fielding interest from New York and Hollywood.

"It has opened the doors to many new opportunities," she said.

Few
people have the stamina to broadcast their entire lives as Gnant and
Ezarik have done. Instead, they showcase events such as weddings,
baptisms, even funerals.

When her grandparents couldn’t attend
her graduation from Stanford University, 22-year-old Marie-Jo
Mont-Reynaud used Ustream to let them watch the ceremony, plus a
performance when she jumped onstage to dance with the Stanford band and
tried playing the trombone.

"My grandma loved it," Mont-Reynaud said.

Some
established entertainers are using live Web streams to boost their
profiles. CW’s teen television drama "One Tree Hill" is experimenting
with live chats with cast members and plans to broadcast the filming of
a scene live on Justin.tv.

After playing a sold-out concert in
New York one August evening, the three Jonas Brothers piled into a limo
and headed to a record store in Times Square. Fans mobbed the teen
rockers as they bought the group’s new album, which Hollywood Records
had just released.

Every second was captured on camera and shown live on JonasBrothers.tv, the band’s channel on Justin.tv.

More than 110,000 people tuned in for at least part of the broadcast and chatted away in online forums.

"To
have the capability of going straight to the fans and communicate with
them is the best thing ever," said the eldest sibling, Kevin Jonas, 19.

Mark
Sacks, a new-media agent at William Morris Agency, said online live
video wouldn’t replace more traditional programming but could help
entertainers better interact with their audiences.

"At the end
of the day, we all still want to see high-quality entertainment," he
said. "This does not disrupt that. It just creates another way for
people to connect."

Live video taps into the contemporary freewheeling zeitgeist, Justin.tv Chief Executive Michael Seibel said.

"You
no longer need to imagine what it would be like to witness the protests
in Myanmar, camp out at Burning Man or even spend a day in the life of
an up-and-coming Parisian fashion designer," he said.

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