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Voyeur: HBO/BBDO Navel Gazing

6/29/2007 4:46 AM

HBO has been running ads for their on-line peep show, Voyeur.  The project, which launched last night, might be watchable.  But the promo effort organized in advance of the big reveal has been so obscure, so artsy, so pretentious, so manufactured, that it has turned me off completely.

HBO has led viewers by the nose into thinking that Voyeur is an upcoming show set to air on the channel.  It’s not. Voyeur is, instead, a collection of eight vignettes which will run on the website and other platforms like VOD.  The series is produced by HBO’s ad agency, Omnicom Group’s BBDO.

All the vignettes are set in a single, urban apartment building. The website states that viewers will also find "’artifacts’ of the characters everywhere, pieces of story which have been sprinkled around the web and in the real world to heighten the experience."

The project was hyped in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal which generously described the hoax as an "elaborate marketing maneuver." Per the WSJ: "HBO hopes the slickly made Web films….will ‘reinforce our brand image of being the best place for storytelling,’ says Courteney Monroe, senior vice president of consumer marketing at HBO."

Omnicom’s media-services firm, PHD, "also helped create the promotional effort," according to the WSJ.  Total cost of the project is between seven and ten million.

Unfortunately, the Voyeur project is so vague it’s hard to see how this self-consciously cryptic effort will add value to the network’s image.  Treasure hunts are popular with the gen-y crowd but my gen-y daughter, born to a laptop, ended up navigating her way off the Voyeur pages and onto the HBO site.  Vexed by the bad design, she quickly switched to old-fashioned cable/HBO on-demand to catch up with Entourage episodes..

First, the start page of Voyeur is jet black - except for some microscopic purple lettering at the bottom that only the most dedicated users can locate.  Users are left staring at a black screen.  (Gee, where have I encountered this before?)

After finally locating the nanometer-sized menu at the bottom, I click on "learn more" which steers me to a photo of a telephone book.  I click again, this time on the itty-bitty, teensy-weensy "facts, thoughts and theories about the HBO Voyeur project."

This shunts me to a blog managed by someone named "Kesu James." Tag line: "You like to watch but do you get it?"

 "It’s up!  It’s up!" exclaims Kesu. "Last night I looked at the apartment building across from my window and I wondered if I was being watched…Truthfully, it doesn’t matter who the individuals are. Bloggers reveal themselves to the Audience, not to You."

It’s all very pomo.  So far, only one or two users have commented.  Others were probably turned away by one too many black screens.  "Kesu" claims that "millions are checking the site, at the SAME TIME [sic]" and warns the site might be a little slow as a result.

Well, okay - if millions are piling in AT THE SAME TIME, why are there only two to three comments on his blog?

I click on "Who Am I?"

"My name is Kesu James and I work primarily as a digital writer. I send [sic] out bundles of job inquiries to interactive agencies, but HBO contacted me because of a documentary I made about online experiences. They are diving headfirst into the ‘new media revolution’ with their HBOVoyeur Project and they asked me to be an impartial third party to document the process - the good, the bad, and everything in between. I have no real authority, but I get to hang around the offices and sit in on meetings and write about what I see. The result is this blog: part journal, part promotion for HBO, and part documentation."

Kesu James might be real.  If it’s this same person listed on the NYU site, he appears to be an okay guy. His tacky, fun HBO photo i.d. admits him to the  "9th Floor, 1114 Avenue of the Americas."

Someone at BBDO and/or HBO or PHD probably thought they were monumentally clever when they decided to include a meta-voyeur blog - a voyeur of Voyeur who promises "teasers, exclusive content, and buried storylines. Plus a little gossip too."  But Kesu also says he doesn’t know if there will be bleachers at an event and claims not to know "anything about other websites, films, series" beyond last night’s on-demand teaser called Watcher.

Finally, I click on:
"What is the HBO Voyeur Project?"

"The HBO Voyeur Project is a collection of multi-media stories that HBO has built around the theme of voyeurism.
See what people do when they think no one is Watching
is the tagline that they have used to describe the experience that starts in the streets of New York City, behind the countless windows that we pass everyday…However it is experienced in whichever medium, the point of the HBO Voyeur Project is to get the viewer to confront the uncomfortable question: ‘Do You Like To Watch?’”

Well, not Voyeur anyway.

Perhaps HBO and BBDO think the meta-musings and iffy punctuation confer a veneer of authenticity.  Maybe they don’t understand the blogsphere very well.  The fearsome boys of Slashdot would be all over this in a New York minute.

The Voyeur project is meant to "enhance HBO’s image as a great storyteller."(WSJ)  HBO’s image needs no burnishing in this regard.  Competition from FX and Showtime is fierce but the network is still television’s preeminent story teller.  It’s the cancellation of viewer favorites like Rome and Deadwood that has tarnished their reputation. 

HBO is addressing the wrong image problem with Voyeur.  And on top of that, the project only detracts. The experience has a slick, manufactured, old school feel that’s as cluelessly inept as SNL lounge lizard Nick Winters’ rendition of Star Wars.

September