What Exactly Does PJTV Do Well?

Were I a Pajamas Media investor, I’d be apoplectic about PJTV. Consider the video teased today on Instapundit: a 21 minute conversation among Glenn Reynolds, Michelle Malkin and Joe Wurzelbacher. The topics are the stimulus bill, the Obama transition and what Michael Steele should be doing. I defy you to pluck even one fresh insight or original argument from the back and forth, if you can even make it through the whole thing. Before you try, I should warn you that the efforts at humor are about as funny as watching a clown car driving around a field. Literally! PJTV actually cuts to stock footage of a clown car driving around a field (on multiple occasions).

This doesn’t begin to exhaust the venture’s problems, which are so numerous that it is difficult to believe its proprieters understand the business of Web video. I am by no means an expert. Even so, my experience at Bloggingheads.TV and some general observations about political media are sufficient to provide advice that Roger Simon and company would do well to heed.

Let’s think about the nature of Web video. Inefficiency is its great disadvantage. A capable blogger like Glenn Reynolds could say in 3 paragraphs everything he communicated in that 21 minute video. Why would I ever take the time to watch him, rather than reading him? It’s a question I’ve given a lot of thought, because one of my favorite Web video personalities, Mickey Kaus, also happens to be the most concise blogger ever. So why do I watch him on Bloggingheads?

One reason is that when Mickey Kaus and Bob Wright talk, they challenge one another’s arguments, are forced to think on their feet, and therefore produce insights, arguments and gaffes that would never happen in print. Mickey and Bob also have great chemistry; so do the pairings of John McWhorter with Glenn Loury, and John Corn with Jim Pinkerton.

Even absent uncommon chemistry, the argumentative parries on Bloggingheads produce most of its best moments. One example among many is this exchange between David Frum and Mark Schmitt on the appropriate way to commemorate the September 11 terrorist attacks. It’s a powerful, illuminating back-and-forth precisely because the men involved are forthrightly engaged in conversation. This is how Bloggingheads competes with debates on cable talking heads shows, despite lesser known names and markedly worse production values — they offer a format where interesting disagreements can emerge, and cater everything to that comparative advantage.

That model may be useless to PJTV. Their strategy seems to preclude interesting disagreements—all content must slavishly reaffirm the worldview of its intended audience! It is possible to succeed despite that constraint. Rush Limbaugh manages by being an astoundingly talented broadcaster. Bill O’Reilly pretends to air debates, but controls the format so tightly that he always “wins.” Sean Hannity’s show went so far as to feature punditry’s answer to the Washington Generals as his sidekick.

The problem PJTV faces is that it offers neither the substance of Bloggingheads, nor personalities as adept at their medium as Rush, nor the production quality of actual cable television. There’s just Joe the Plumber as Washington correspondent, offering analysis of this quality.

The linked video begins with Joe’s report on the stimulus bill, in which he says the following:

Today I had one briefing, and that was at the Club for Growth, I spoke to Andy Roth. Now yesterday, I talked to the Heritage Foundation. I actually had the chance to talk to the Cato Institute as well, I guess you could call it a briefing, it was more of an interview. But all these bipartisan, or if you will neutral, think tanks are pretty much saying the same things. Say no to this bill, it will devastate America.

Are PJTV viewers well served by that description of the aforementioned think tanks? That they are “neutral” observers of the biggest economic policy bill in a generation? Is PJTV well served by employing — as its Washington correspondent — a guy who either doesn’t realize Heritage describes itself as a conservative outfit, or else is willing to lie about that fact? Can the PJTV audience assume that its economic policy reporting is going to consist of an average Joe visiting Cato and reporting whatever they say as fact? Hey, I really like Cato, but if that’s all Pajamas Media is offering I’d just assume watch Brink Lindsay on Bloggingheads or listen to Will Wilkinson on Marketplace.

The PJTV technology is no better positioned than the rest of the enterprise. Bloggingheads figured out early on that even given a good pairing that elicited fresh arguments, insights or exchanges, sitting through an hour of Web video wasn’t a winning bet for attracting a sizable audience. Let’s return to the topic of today’s PJTV conversation: the stimulus, the Obama transition, and advice for Michael Steele. Were those topics around in the early days of Bloggingheads, Bob and Mickey would’ve talked about them in an unbroken thirty minute conversation, but they quickly figured out it would be better to offer the same content broken up into three topics, so that if only one interested me I wouldn’t have to sit through the others.

The next step: an ability to isolate any clip of whatever length, and to link the interval directly. And finally the ability of any audience member to isolate any clip, generate embed code for it, and share it on their blog. Thus thirty seconds of video from an hour long conversation has the potential to go viral.

People as Web savvy as Glenn Reynolds and Michelle Malkin presumably understand that content spreads on the Internet by link or embed, that analysis by Joe the Plumber isn’t information worth paying for, and that they lack the technology employed by Bloggingheads. I’m not sure why PJTV didn’t develop those technical features, unless it’s because they intend to keep everything behind a pay wall… in which case I cannot imagine how they intend to attract very many people to pay for the content they’re offering, sight unseen, and without any ability to argue about what’s seen in the wider blogosphere.

As a shameless Bloggingheads partisan, and someone who isn’t particularly knowledgeable about Web video, perhaps I’ve gone wrong somewhere. But if I were a PJTV investor, I’d demand answers to all of those criticisms — and if I were a PJTV manager, I’d get to work before my next conversation with investors. (A tip for where to begin: 18 seconds is too long for an intro with nothing but your logo on the screen!)