What popularity of the BP live feed 'spillcam' says about us

The BP live feed of the Gulf oil spill is proving to be mesmerizing to millions of Web viewers.

By , Staff writer

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    Real drama: One of the BP live feed cameras recorded this remote operated submersible working on the Gulf oil spill leak on Friday.
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The techno-theatrical drama playing out at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico has drawn viewers around the world deep inside the BP oil spill.

The BP live feed looks like something out of James Cameron's "The Abyss," but the stakes are very real for the Gulf Coast and perhaps even the nation as it looks toward energy independence. As they flicker on computer screens around the world, the images from the BP live feed not only give a glimpse into the deep-sea stillness around a violent oil geyser, but become, for some, an example of how technology can, nearly second by second, provide a filter-free view of a breaking news event for a public used to more "spin" in its press.

"This is definitely on the scale of a historical moment, and we're watching it live, in color, on the Internet – forget YouTube, right?" says Kevin Grandia, a BP live feed buff and a blogger at EnergyBoom.com. He, like many of the 700,000 viewers of the spill at EnergyBoom.com, has the HD-sharp images open on his laptop at work. For Mr. Grandia, the power of the feed is "bearing witness."

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Indeed, people are watching in droves. Web usage patterns point to millions of viewers leaving the spillcam live on their laptop screens as they work, often keeping the images flowing all day.

The BP live feed "reminds us how incredibly postmodern and weird this is, the idea that people across the country are using this enormous environmental disaster and this metaphorically charged tragedy for a kind of wallpaper while they walk from cubicle to cubicle," says Robert Thompson, a pop culture expert at Syracuse University in New York.

It's unclear whether BP's precipitous market value loss since the demise of the Deepwater Horizon rig has been affected by what's happening on the spill cam. But BP recently said all information about the spill was "stock market sensitive." That likely means more than a few Wall Street traders are among the millions tuning in to watch BP try to kill what Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever likened to a real-life "smoke monster" snatched from the season-ender of "Lost."

Mr. Thompson says the popularity of the BP live feed points to a new kind of cultural transfixion on reality, which can, in a case like this, be more bizarre and mesmerizing than anything Hollywood can invent.

Indeed, Huffington Post's David Kronke reviewed the BP live feed as though it were an endless movie: "BP's Oil Spill Live Feed offers something unprecedented in the history of cinema …," he writes. "It audaciously challenges audiences by offering none of the draws big-budget disaster movies generally employ to lure viewers – no A-list movie stars, no eye-popping special effects … no pithy (or even wooden) dialogue, no comforting resolutions."

The action changed Thursday when, at the behest of Rep. Ed Markey (D) of Massachusetts, BP put all of its 12 video feeds up simultaneously. Now viewers can watch the plume, dispersant operations, and even ROVs with names like "Neptune Skandi ROV 2" and "Enterprise ROV 1" eye each other as their faraway operators attempt to fit a "top cap" on the well to siphon off, it is hoped, up to 90 percent of the geyser.

Before the spill cam, of course, there was the panda cam at Washington's National Zoo and a number of other live feed sensations on the Internet. An early example of public fascination with instant images from a disaster zone was the coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, where TV news shows like CNN turned into "war channels," says Thompson.

"What's so fascinating about the oil spillcam is that you see it in an unmediated way. It's not being narrated. It's not being cut to somebody's comment," he says. "You're just simply watching America bleed."

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IN PICTURES: Sticky mess: The Gulf oil spill's impact on nature

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