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TAXICAB—‘Confessions’ Moves Online

Joe and Harry Gantz claim they’re just a couple of guys from Cincinnati who make documentaries. But to their fans, they’re the pioneers of reality TV. “They’re a couple of real talented guys,” said Dan Morada, a spokesman for HBO, where the brothers’ Emmy Award-winning “Taxicab Confessions” has become one of the cable network’s bonafide hits. “We were doing reality TV before there was reality TV, but we didn’t know it,” said 42-year-old Harry Gantz. Their first documentary in 1986 was a film that simply showed couples fighting with one another. “We’d just tape them while they argued. It was all very spontaneous,” recalled Harry Gantz as he spoke at the brothers’ Woodland Hills office. But now the “pioneers” are beginning to feel the constraints of cable TV. They think they may have found another medium that will eventually pay off, if not financially, at least artistically: the Internet. The Gantz Brothers went on line in February with CrushedPlanet.com., a Web site with streaming video of uncensored standup comedy and a variety of programs that involve hidden cameras catching all sorts of people “being themselves,” Harry Gantz said. After three months, CrushedPlanet has a fairly modest 1,400 subscribers paying $5.95 a month. The site joins other so-called reality Web sites like alltrue.com and CrapTV.com. What they share with CrushedPlanet is content that would not be acceptable on TV, even cable. “The reality craze that’s happened on TV is basically contests and take strangers and put them in a room or somewhere on an island or something, and I’m glad it exploded, but we’re making things a little different,” Harry Gantz said. The Gantz brothers insist CrushedPlanet isn’t merely a commercial enterprise. “Sure we’d like to make money on this, but it’s more about getting our stuff out to the public. It’s something that we have complete control over and don’t have a middleman,” Harry Gantz said. Perhaps more important, the brothers say, is being able to show material that HBO and other cable channels won’t. “There are limits, even on cable. But here, we can do anything. That’s the great thing about the Internet,” Harry said. For instance, the Web site’s “First Apartment” details the lives of young couples who agree to live, eat, sleep and have sex in front of the cameras. “Couples Arguing” takes its premise from the brothers’ first documentary with its often shocking language that comes with couples arguing in front of the camera. When one of the program’s five couples feel an argument coming on, they page CrushedPlanet.com and wait in separate rooms for a camera crew to arrive before they continue the fight. Other programs include “Sex and Psyche,” a documentary-like program about sexual obsessions and fantasies that pushes the envelope of good taste; “Eavesdropping,” which catches ordinary people in unusual situations, for instance at a party for selling sex toys; and “The War on Comedy,” filmed at the M & M; Soul Food Kitchen restaurant in South Central Los Angeles. The program features uncensored appearances by comics whose topics include race relations, sex and drugs. The Gantz brothers started the Web site on a shoestring there is no venture capital funding, no marketing budget, just a statement from the two that they hope to attract subscribers in February 2000. Like many dot-coms, they started out hoping to sell advertising, then switched in January to a subscription service. “We know what’s been happening to dot-coms, that’s why it’s just us and no other investors. We know what can happen in this business,” Harry Gantz said. Still, so far so good, said Jonathan Kramer, a Los Angeles-based Internet analyst, of the brothers’ enterprise. “If you can build a good subscriber base, you’re in a good position to turn a profit,” Kramer said. “But it’s a challenge to stay ahead of the game.” Harry said, “For us, the Internet is the place to be. It’s a way for us to distribute our work and show it directly to the public. “So if people are willing to pay $12 a month for HBO and $20 a year for their favorite magazine, why not pay to subscribe to us?” Joe Gantz, 46, says he’s proud to be part of what he considers the small group that founded reality programming. Only a few years ago, he said, there were just a handful of reality programming producers. “Today, there are hundreds.” Although the Web site keeps them, their four employees and a varying number of camera crews busy, the Gantz brothers say they’ll continue to produce programs for television. Recently, they completed a pilot for HBO titled “No Joke,” which shows comics performing and peeks into their personal lives. “We thought the show would be inexpensive and we thought that we didn’t want to do a generic comedy show and we found this whole new world there,” Harry Gantz said. The Gantz duo also has another installment of their “Taxicab Confessions” scheduled for HBO next year. “‘Confessions’ is a difficult show to do,” Harry Gantz said. “We go out for six weeks all night and get 38 rides and we try to get as much good footage as we can.” The program features a specially designed cab in which six tiny cameras record everything passengers say and do. At the end of the ride, they are told about the cameras and are asked to sign a waiver. About 75 percent of the passengers agree to allow themselves to appear on television. Those who agree are paid $500 and get a free taxi ride. The program features frank talk about relationships and sex. At times, it shows couples having sex, though not explicitly. The Gantz brothers say the relationships between the passengers and the cab driver is the real draw. “The cab is the great equalizer,” Harry said. “It doesn’t matter whether they’re rich or poor or what they do for a living. It shows that these people are human and that they have feelings.”

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