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Rocketboom

Josh Lee

In many ways, TiVo is a particularly apt platform for a show like Rocketboom.


Platforms: rather than having to schedule your time around the things you want to watch (or passively absorbing whatever happens to be on at the moment), you are able to take an active role in deciding what you consume. The ability to graze on content as you please, rather than being force-fed it as it comes, is a key feature of both TiVo and the Web. So a grazable show like Rocketboom is a natural fit.
Multimedia: Rocketboom

Rocketboom is a weird little beast, but the last time I checked, pretty much everything on the Internet was a weird little beast. Like your typical weblog, it consists mostly of links to other web sites, offbeat news stories, commentary on the state of new media, and random freak-outs. The difference between Rocketboom and your typical weblog, however, is that it's a weblog per se, but a video podcast. That's not especially weird; what is weird is the way in which Rocketboom has made the jump from the confines of the podcast world into that of television. In addition to making an appearance in an episode of C.S.I. (in which a killer watches Rocketboom to check up on news of his own crimes), the podcast has been picked up by TiVo, as an experiment in the use of the set-top box to download web-based content for playback on a television set. In making the migration from iPods to TVs, Rocketboom invites comparisons not only to other podcasts, but to the more traditional television content that TiVo normally records.

The shows that Rocketboom is most readily compared to -- Late Show with David Letterman, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, etc. -- are all heavily driven by their eponymous hosts. Similarly, Rocketboom revolves around its anchor, Amanda Congdon. Most audio podcasters travel in packs, favoring a roundtable format; video podcasts tend to gravitate towards staged skits or pre-produced content. While Rocketboom does have a number of contributing bloggers on its roster and doesn't shy away from the occasional sketch, its unusually strong focus on a single personality makes it stand out from the rest of the podcasting scene. If there's one thing Congdon (and producer Andrew Baron) understand, it's that in order for a blog to stand out from the crowd, it needs to have a distinctive, consistent voice -- or in the case of a video podcast, both a voice and a face.

Like Letterman and O'Brien, Congdon makes use of a wide range of tics and is willing to act dorky in front of a camera in order to gain the viewers' trust (or at least his or her attention). And like the best comedian-hosts, Congdon's routine starts out as confusing, goes beyond irritating, and somehow manages to become a form of loud, spastic, audio-visual comfort food. In fact, Congdon's wild-eyed delivery actually comes across better on television than over the Web. When you watch video on a computer, your eyes are only a few inches from the screen, overlapping windows and error pop-ups constantly flickering around the edges of your peripheral vision. With all of these goings-on going on, Congdon's relentless attack can sometimes seem a bit much. A television set lies further from your face, though, and a few feet of separation makes all the difference.

In many ways, TiVo is a particularly apt platform for a show like Rocketboom. Personable, pithy, and above all short, Rocketboom blends nicely into the mix of shows that TiVo stirs together for you. In its own pattern-matching, time-shifting, ad-skipping way, TiVo encourages a style of television viewing that kind of reflects the Web: rather than having to schedule your time around the things you want to watch (or passively absorbing whatever happens to be on at the moment), you are able to take an active role in deciding what you consume. The ability to graze on content as you please, rather than being force-fed it as it comes, is a key feature of both TiVo and the Web. So a grazable show like Rocketboom is a natural fit.

While Rocketboom works well on both computers and televisions, it does lose a few things in the transition from one type of screen to the other. Congdon frequently refers to other websites, encouraging viewers to go check them out right away. On the computer, this is easy enough. But unless you keep a laptop on the coffee table while you watch TV, following links can be a tricky proposition. Even though one of the goals of podcasting is to allow the viewer to take in shows on portable devices, seemingly untethered from the desktop and the network, it's hard to shake the feeling that an iPod is somehow closer to the computer than a TV is, and the conversion from a Web-based show to a TiVo-based one should somehow involve more than just being downloaded over a different connection.

These are minor quibbles, however, and for the most part, Rocketboom's content is strong enough to stand on its own. This is especially true when the show breaks out of its usual Web-trawling routine and presents more varied features. Interview subjects range from U.S. Senator John Edwards to author Bruce Sterling to one of the guys who came up with Burger King's Subservient Chicken ad campaign. One recent episode featured a subtitled, Dutch-speaking correspondent reporting on elections in Uganda, where all his interviewees speak English. This sort of journalistic and linguistic there-and-back-again is an example of the kind of opportunities for low-overhead, grassroots media-making that the Internet (and public access television, for that matter) was supposed to enable all along. It's nice to see that even as it garners an ever-broadening viewership and new avenues of distribution, Rocketboom is still interested in pushing new media forward, even as it begins its invasion of the old.

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