YOUtv and You

What if they put a TV camera in a mall and nobody cared?

At twenty minutes past noon on the last day of July, a man wearing a "Licensed to Speed" T-shirt backed into the Grand Dining Hall (read: food court) at Park Meadows Town Center (read: mall), tugging a mover's dolly with a large item strapped to it. At first glance, the jukebox-sized object resembled a portable toilet, or perhaps a bargain-basement coffin. But after the man pried off its lid, revealing a computer screen, a camera port and two giant buttons (one red, one green), it was transformed into...what? A glass-fronted refrigerator with a built-in HAL 9000 unit direct from 2001: A Space Odyssey?

No one in the jam-packed food court seemed to know quite what to make of this obelisk. A well-dressed, middle-aged fellow edged toward it, only to back away quickly, as if he'd been caught staring a little too intently at the Victoria's Secret display window, while a trio of fifteen-year-old girls approached it en masse, giggled collectively, and trotted away the moment the worker returned with wings he mounted to the side of the machine, revealing it to be the latest addition to the Colorado television scene: YOUtv.

Colleen Carlson, a marketing account executive who's overseeing the implementation of YOUtv for Channel 4, the station behind the device, describes the project as "a great way for people to talk about what's on their mind and what's happening in Colorado." (This theme is emphasized in messages printed on the wings of the YOUtv kiosk: "YOUR VOICE -- YOUR VIEWS -- DEBATE IT -- DISCUSS IT -- DISPUTE IT -- IT'S YOUR OPINION -- STEP UP -- SPEAK OUT.") Moreover, Carlson goes on, the device is easy to operate -- and she's right. A user presses the green button, centers himself in front of the camera (the word "LOOK" is printed on one side of the lens, "HERE" on the other), and, after another push of the green button, is given the opportunity to respond to three questions. The plan right now calls for the first two queries to be topical in nature -- on July 31, participants were prompted to name one thing about Colorado they'd like to change, and to comment on I-25 construction -- with the third being an open-ended request to talk about anything the person wishes for up to thirty seconds.

illustration by Mark Andresen

Sounds like fun -- and since Channel 4 is airing as many as five YOUtv snippets each weekday at approximately 5:40 p.m. as part of its hour-long 5 p.m. newscast, anyone who's even halfway comprehensible has a decent shot at some face time. Which, judging by the screaming throngs gathered habitually outside the Today show studio or the street below the MTV broadcast space during Total Request Live is something every red-blooded American wants, right?

Maybe not. During the two hours after the workman got the Park Meadows YOUtv booth up and running on that late July day, a grand total of two people in the consistently busy food court touched the start button: a boy around five years of age, and another of about eight who seemed willing and ready to go through the entire process until his mother snapped, "Patrick, get away from that thing!" (A note on the front of the booth says it's for use only by folks eighteen and above.) At one point, a couple in their forties approached the kiosk gingerly before retreating; a man in his thirties did likewise, and an elderly security guard with a large white mustache and a wide-brimmed Ranger Smith hat cleaned up the floor in front of it, as if he thought people were staying away out of fear that they might stumble over a scrap of bread torn off a hotdog bun. But he was wrong. Even snotty teenage boys, a demographic that traditionally enjoys giving the finger to anything and everything, kept their distance.

Such indifference seems par for the course right now. Thus far, the YOUtv segments, which Channel 4 began airing on July 30, haven't been as gimmicky as might have been expected (the station has made a point of linking them with statistics or news events), but neither have they been especially intriguing. Like the man-on-the-street features with which they're most readily compared, they're the typical sort of filler that there's already too much of on local TV news. Additionally, a handful of commentators appeared on more than one day, suggesting that there are precious few airable recordings from which to choose.

It's not as if the kiosks hadn't been accessible or that area residents knew nothing about them. The station has been promoting YOUtv steadily since late June and placed semi-permanent kiosks at Park Meadows and FlatIron Crossing, a retail resort (read: mall) in the north metro area, a couple weeks later. In addition, Carlson says, a third, "traveling" booth will shift locations frequently in an effort to capture the "diversity" the suburban malls clearly lack. The booth was on display at the Parade of Homes in Parker throughout the weekend of July 28, where Channel 4 personnel actively invited attendees to use it, and at a July 30 appearance by Elisabeth Filarski, the sweetheart of Survivor. Filarski was happy to record something on the contraption, but, of course, she's accustomed to talking to quasi-hidden cameras.

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