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.

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.

Nonetheless, says David Peacock, the colorfully named, fast-talking president and executive producer for YOUtv, which is based in Toronto, Canada, it's far too early to call the system a flop. In his view, "Channel 4 is building a brand, and this brand has to build. At first there may be two or three hours that go by when no one's using it, but you can't get disheartened. Because YOUtv is the key to the car, the key to television, and it may take viewers a while to believe that we're giving the key to them. But we are giving them the key -- and they can drive wherever they want."

The origin of YOUtv can be traced back to 1990, when Citytv, a Toronto station, introduced Speakers Corner, a feature based upon video of average Joes and Janes gabbing at a single recording booth placed on a street corner. The following year, Peacock and his partner, Ian Chamandy, refined this approach by developing portable kiosks that could be moved by a single person, not a squad of linebackers. Citytv and YOUtv, as Peacock and Chamandy named their company, teamed up shortly thereafter, and this combined force helped create what Peacock gleefully calls "a Canadian institution." Indeed, so many people started using YOUtv -- upwards of 6,000 a week -- that Citytv eventually began charging a dollar per person to start the camera rolling, with the proceeds going to charity, in an effort to cut down on the volume. (Channel 4's kiosks are free.)

Among those who've strutted their stuff before one of YOUtv's Toronto cameras are comics Mike Myers and Jim Carrey, as well as the Barenaked Ladies, a Canadian combo whose performances in front of the gadget helped lead to greater things. (The band headlines August 10 at Fiddler's Green.) But for Peacock, the best indication of YOUtv's influence came after a game when footballer Raghib Ismail, a star at Notre Dame now with the Dallas Cowboys, was playing for the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. As Peacock remembers it, Ismail lost his cool during an early-'90s game "and jumped on someone with both feet. It was a terrible thing. But afterward, he didn't call a press conference or anything like that. He slunk down to Citytv's Speakers Corner installation and said, 'Kids, I play football for Toronto, and I know a lot of you respect me. But what I did today was very unsportsmanlike and cowardly, and I hope you don't respect that. I'm so sorry.'"

After a couple of years, Peacock and company began exporting YOUtv. The program eventually took root in locations as far-flung as Bogota, Colombia, and Nairobi, Kenya, but the U.S. proved resistant; YOUtv tanked for Chicago's WGN. But Peacock didn't give up, and in recent years, he's sold the system to Post-Newsweek Stations Inc. and Iowa's Meredith Broadcasting Group, and last December he inked a reported $10 million deal with CBS, which owns and operates twelve TV outlets in major American markets, including Channel 4 in Denver. CBS execs see the correlation between YOUtv and "reality" shows such as the aforementioned Survivor, but Peacock warns against linking them too closely. "'Reality' doesn't really mean reality anymore," he declares, in full showman mode. "It's edited, manipulated. That's why I call what we do 'True TV' -- because the editing is kept to a minimum. It's just what people say. It's true."

YOUtv is slated to go into all of the CBS-owned stations, with the ones in Denver and Minneapolis serving as guinea pigs. Channel 4's Carlson, whose job includes collecting the videotapes from the machines (remote technology is available, but not yet cost-effective), believes YOUtv can be used for a wide variety of purposes, including station promotions and advertiser tie-ins. She mentions, for instance, that a YOUtv station in Florida, in conjunction with a local business, gave a free trip to the Grammy Awards to the person who did the best job singing a Grammy-nominated song into a kiosk. Other stations have gone even further -- most notably WSMV in Nashville, which has a regularly scheduled half-hour program made up entirely of YOUtv clips. "We think this can really make our station better," Carlson says.

If anyone here uses the damn thing, that is.

A tale of two papers: Last weekend, as Denver Post owner Dean Singleton was celebrating his fiftieth birthday with several hundred of his closest friends ("Press for Success," August 2), the folks at Colorado's other two major dailies were having considerably less fun.

At the Rocky Mountain News, the paper that came in on the short end of the joint-operating-agreement stick, complaints continue to roll in about its struggling Saturday edition and just about everything else. In an August 3 column, Rocky vet Gene Amole noted that he hasn't received a single letter or e-mail supporting the pact, adding, "Remember all that talk about the JOA 'preserving' Denver as a 'two-newspaper' town? What a bunch of baloney that was. The Denver Post is trying to run us out of business."

In this respect, the Post seems to be making progress. A reliable Rocky source reveals that thanks to the dumping of the Saturday enterprise section and generally tight space overall, many reporters are having trouble getting anything but the smallest or most timely articles into the paper; some have as many as half a dozen stories backlogged, with no guarantee that their pieces will ever see the light of day. No wonder some staffers are nervous about the prospect of layoffs.

Meanwhile, the Colorado Springs Gazette has been shaken by a major management shuffle. Editor Terri Fleming, who took the position in early 2000, was given her walking papers in late July, and managing editors Cliff Foster and Keith Briscoe are in limbo. Gazette associate publisher and vice president Jon Stepleton, speaking for the paper, says Foster is presently serving as "an editor at large, working on stories of major scope," while Briscoe has been assigned to handle "a variety of administrative duties" -- but neither is guaranteed similar positions under a new editor, who Stepleton hopes will be named before year's end. (Until then, Jeff Thomas, best known for his work with the Gazette's computer-assisted reporting program, will handle most of the editor's chores.) On top of that, city editor Bill Vogrin has been made senior writer on the metro desk, while executive sports editor Geoff Grant has handed over day-to-day oversight of the sports section to Jim O'Connell, who's been named interim sports editor.

Publisher Thomas Mullen, who was out of town and unavailable for comment, seems to be the person behind most of these changes, with newsroom scuttlebutt suggesting that he was unhappy with the quality of the Gazette under Fleming. (Mullen used to edit the paper back when it was winning major journalism prizes, the most noteworthy being Dave Curtin's 1990 Pulitzer, secured in the feature category. Curtin is now with the Denver Post.)

But business matters may have factored in as well. Although the Gazette's circulation numbers are up (Stepleton credits the rise to the end of penny subscription offers from the Post and the Rocky, as well as a vigorous Gazette campaign called "Operation Rebound"), its revenues have been hurt by dive-bombing classified-ad sales -- a common problem in the newspaper industry these days. "I think our experience mirrors what's going on around the country, and like everybody else, we're anticipating a turn next summer," Stepleton says. "But even if it's not as soon as we hope, we still have very high aspirations for the paper and think the editor's job is a great opportunity for someone who wants to work for an organization with a history of journalistic excellence."

The current turmoil notwithstanding.

TD scores: When Steve Kaplan, owner of the Gold Club, a high-rent strip establishment in Atlanta, agreed to a plea bargain on August 2, thereby putting the brakes on his sensational trial, few could have been happier than Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis. Although Davis's name popped up in testimony, with one dancer saying he paid her $200 for "scoring" in a very special way, he wasn't called to the stand -- something local media reps wouldn't have been able to ignore.

Or would they? The two Denver dailies never assigned a staff member to look into the Davis-Gold Club connection ("Stripped Down," May 31), relying almost exclusively on wire copy. Likewise, they failed to investigate some potentially intriguing tangents, including Davis's being dropped as a spokesman by Campbell's soup and the potential repercussions he might have faced because of a morality clause in his contract. (In a John Fox piece run by the Rocky on July 27, Assistant U.S. Attorney Art Leach was quoted as saying he might not call Davis because of the clause -- a highly questionable stance for a prosecutor to take.) But at least local TV reporters had the nerve to ask Davis a couple of questions about his potential testimony when Broncos training camp opened. Channels 4 and 7 -- shock of shocks -- even broadcast his responses.

It might not be much, but at least it's something.

Saved by the bell: If you happen to be strolling through the Denver Post newsroom and hear a bell ringing, it doesn't mean an angel is getting his wings. No, it means an executive is calling his troops -- and his troops are rolling their eyes.

The bell ringer in question is Larry Burrough, the Post's managing editor for news, who says he wanted people throughout the newspaper to start attending news meetings at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. so that management could "hear more than the regular voices when we critique the newspaper and make news decisions." But when invitations alone didn't increase turnout, he came up with the lighthearted idea of clanging a bell -- in this case, a seven-inch-wide Italian brass bell that Burrough admits is "much louder than I expected" -- to let everyone know the meetings were about to start. "I thought it might add a little fun," he says.

The bell triggered some other responses, too, including, Burrough concedes, "some incredibly creative discussions about my sanity, and about how to sabotage it, how to melt it down, how to smuggle it out the door." The attendance at the meetings hasn't skyrocketed, either, but Burrough isn't ready to give up his noisemaker yet. "Will I keep using the bell?" he asks. "You betcha. What the hell."

Ding-dong.

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