The Community Turns Its Camera On
KLRU's 'Docubloggers' mixes new media and old
It didn't take Internet entrepreneurs long to capitalize on the hilarity of home movies, and it took even less time for bored office workers, grounded high schoolers, and "studying" college students to follow their lead. And while most of us have to admit passing an exorbitant amount of time watching fainting goats and Britney Spears tributes on unfiltered sites like YouTube, we probably should concede that the quality of online video uploads often leaves something to be desired.
This past fall, two producers from local PBS affiliate KLRU sought to negotiate the delicate balance between television's packaged prime time and the Web's online free-for-all. They created a media hybrid called Docubloggers: a weekly, half-hour television show on life in Central Texas that accepts community submissions for each episode and offers an online video blog where video submitters, community members, and the show's producers can discuss Central Texas-related topics, comment on pieces, and upload new videos for potential airing. In doing so, the producers provide what neither network television nor online video sites have: a place for stories on homeless cats, a competitive knife-throwing competition, a Latina sewing cooperative, and Camp Mabry's military museum ... and all without an accompanying recording of "Chocolate Rain."
Docubloggers producers Domenique Bellavia and Sean Cunningham previously worked together on KLRU's Austin Now, and as that program ended, the two sought to start their own show. They wanted to produce "something different," says Bellavia. "Something new. Something that incorporated a huge online component." They eventually came up with Docubloggers.
In March 2007, the pair produced a pilot episode that established early Docubloggers' model of splitting time between KLRU-produced content and community-produced materials.* The pilot featured two shorts from Bellavia – one on Justin Maass, a pro rodeo roper, and one on local jazz vocalist Judy Alpert – as well as a piece by Cunningham on photographer Michael Nye and a community-produced submission by Amy Bench titled "House of Elegance," which tells the story of an East Austin beauty salon. Like most of the show's early community submissions, the producers acquired Bench's piece through UT's film community.
The two continued to host their show's website and accept submissions on their blog throughout the spring and summer as they waited for their season to start. On Oct. 11, their pilot aired again as their first official episode, and a few weeks later, the Lone Star chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded it an Emmy in the category of Magazine Program – Program/Special. The award provided much-appreciated validation for the producers, whose initial premise received mixed responses. "When we were pitching the idea," Cunningham explains, "we went through different avenues. Sometimes it went over really well, and sometimes, when people heard the name, they got a glazed look in their eyes. It was a nice feather in the cap to know we were moving in the right direction."
Cunningham explains how they put the show together. "We start with a skeleton outline of our seven-episode run of new shows that consists of stories that Dom and I are working on.From there, we take a look at the other stories on our site or in production from other producers and start to form a cohesive show.The themes are sometimes really obvious, like our animal show or war show, and sometimes they're a little looser."
With their professionally produced pieces serving as anchors, Bellavia and Cunningham then fill the allotted time with community-produced shorts pulled from the show's website. They generally request three- to five-minute-long pieces but have aired full submissions less than 10. "We don't pick the stories based on our favorites," Cunningham explains, "but rather on how they fit into an episode. A story might not air immediately after it's posted to the site, but if we can air it, there's a good likelihood that we will."
Members of the community submit both written entries and video shorts to the show's blog, using WordPress and YouTube accounts. The Docubloggers' website (www.klru.org/docubloggers) contains detailed instructions on how to start these accounts, as well as advice on basic filmmaking techniques, directions on how to use equipment (such as cameras and microphones), suggestions on where to procure materials, and even copies of generic legal disclosures. At its heart, Cunningham explains, "Docubloggers rests on people utilizing both the Web and their television to become more fully involved with their community." Consequently, the producers try hard to air as many submissions as possible, offering assistance to those who might need it but not in any way altering the content of submissions.
Docubloggers collects a wide variety of submissions, some from seasoned documentary filmmakers and some from less experienced directors. They also receive various shorts promoting the work of nonprofit organizations in KLRU's 18-county viewing area. Local documentary filmmaker Mark Mederson decided to submit two pieces – "Knife Throwing Championships," which documents the Central U.S. Knife and Tomahawk Throwing Championships, held in South Austin, and "The Frisco Shop," which catalogs the last day at the diner's old location on Burnet Road – after producing full-length features became too expensive. Freelance journalist Patricio Espinoza submitted his piece on Fuerza Unida, a Latina sewing cooperative in San Antonio, after he stumbled onto the Docubloggers' website while surfing the Internet. And aspiring director and Sgt. 1st Class Diane Tominaga submitted her piece, "The Best Kept Secret in Texas," which focuses on the military museum at Camp Mabry, after Docubloggers' producers saw a piece she filmed for News 8 Austin about her neighborhood, the Mobile Manor RV Park on Barton Springs Road. Local nonprofits such as Shadow Cats, a population control and hospice program for homeless cats in Round Rock, and the United Way's Hands on Central Texas program saw public awareness rise after they were featured on the website, and, in the case of Shadow Cats, that exposure helped to procure additional funding and community support.
Mederson appreciates Docubloggers for the added exposure it offers, as well as the authority that broadcast television affords. He explains: "TMZ.com, the gossip site, is one of the most heavily visited websites out there. But when they really wanted to take it up a notch, they made a broadcast-television show. ... Broadcast television still receives a great deal of respect. So while you can post things on YouTube and watch how many people are watching them, it still means something more to get on broadcast television. That is the allure of Docubloggers."
Docubloggers airs Thursdays at 7:30pm on KLRU.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the August 22, 2008 issue: In last week's Screens feature, "The Community Turns Its Cameras On," Aug. 15, the Chronicle erroneously attributed a profile on pro rodeo roper Justin Maass to Docubloggers producer Sean Cunningham. In fact, Cunningham's colleague Domenique Bellavia produced the piece. The Chronicle regrets the error.