Behind the lens
Friday, January 28, 2011
The reason Michele Bachmann's State of the Union response was disorienting (Ignore the charts. Ignore the Iwo Jima photographs.) was because it seemed like if you were in the right place in your living room - try scooching to the left - she might look at you. But you could never find that place, and so the entire speech seemed to be directed to unseen parties standing just outside your window.
Tony Loiacono can explain.
The problem? There were multiple cameras in the room, he says, and the congresswoman, a Minnesota Republican, was looking into the TeaPartyHD camera with the teleprompter. The networks provided their own cameras instead of plugging into his, which made her glance look askew.
On Friday afternoon, the world will be able to see Bachmann as intended, straight-on.
"TeaPartyHD will be airing the original footage from Representative Bachmann's speech to the State of the Union," Loiacono says, sounding official. And then, as an afterthought, "at 12 o'clock, Pacific time."
Loiacono, 55, is the man who directed and produced Bachmann's famous response video. He is proud of the work that went into the video: "She looks beautiful, the set is pretty. . . . We put her through hair and makeup."
Loiacono - a seasoned San Diego producer - will show the world the original footage because he is determined that all of the content produced through TeaPartyHD.com be of the highest quality. How else can it become a go-to media outlet for a group partly defined by its distrust of the media?
'News that affects liberties'
On Thursday morning, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) addressed a packed hearing room in the Senate's Hart building. It was the first Senate Tea Party Caucus. The lawmakers were there to talk about deficits and spending, and how they were going to get rid of both. Many audience members wore suits and blizzard attire, scattered people wore the buttons and Palin flair seen at tea party rallies.
Loiacono wore a light-colored blazer with a three-point handkerchief in his breast pocket, a black polo shirt, dark pants, and tan, healthy-looking skin. Throughout the morning, he bustled in and out of the hearing room, checking sound, consulting with his cameramen. "I'm the big Italian-looking guy," is the way he described himself on the phone the night before. He has blinding teeth.
Still in Washington after Bachmann's speech, Loiacono had come to this caucus to videotape it for TeaPartyHD, the media outlet he founded in 2010. Its mission, according to the Web site, is "to report the news that affects your liberties right where you live, work and play."
TPHD's launch was a multi-part interview with Ann Coulter. Now it films events Loiacono thinks the mainstream media will ignore, and offers a variety of original programming: In "Constitution 101," two broodingly attractive guys educate viewers on the meaning of words such as "preamble" and "ratify." In "Politics 101," a pretty reporter asks passersby to determine whether outlandish government spending is real or fake. A daily cartoon, "Teachable Moments" - co-produced by the Black Sphere - pairs real audio footage with animation and commentary. "Bill is short for billionaire," a disgusted voiceover intones as a cartoon Bill Gates lets a grandmother die in a hospital bed.
For now, the content is all online-only, or, like Bachmann's speech, fed to news networks. Someday, Loiacono says, he might try to turn TPHD into its own television channel, but he's not overly preoccupied with that. "We're trying to bring in the younger audience," he says, the kind that gets its news online. The Internet is the perfect medium for a grass-roots movement, for an audience that wants its news unfiltered and homemade. He's also less concerned about traffic to the site - he doesn't provide numbers - saying that his goal is not so much to bring people to his site but to "push [the content] out there."
Kevin Jackson, the writer and radio host behind the Black Sphere, was introduced to Loiacono by a friend who thought Jackson's material could be a good fit for TPHD. "I said, 'I'm too busy,' and a lot of people come to me with things like that that don't pan out," Jackson said. Eventually, he agreed to talk with Loiacono and, "I really liked the guy. He's got an amazing pedigree when it comes to marketing. He knows marketing the same way that I know culture and black politics."
Since its inception eight months ago, TPHD has become the media company of choice for the Tea Party Express, the well-known PAC that organized a series of rallies across the country during midterm campaigns and that co-sponsored Bachmann's address.
(Some - most vocally pundit Rachel Maddow - questioned the networks' decision to air Bachmann's speech at all, calling the Tea Party Express a "scam" organization, and saying that it elevated the tea party movement to the status of a formal political party rather than a sect within the GOP. Bachmann declined through a spokesman to comment for this article; her communications director said she was in meetings.)
The Tea Party Express had initially contacted Loiacono about filming their cross-country rallies this fall. "We just thought it would be cool if they were on TV," says Levi Russell, a spokesman for the organization who attended Thursday's caucus. He expected Loiacono's team to set up a static camera in the back of the crowd, "But they started producing a real live show - doing interviews off to the side, filling up dead space," bringing in state-of-the-art equipment.
Now they have a collaborative relationship. Compared with other media upstarts attuned to the tea party's needs, Russell says, "they are 100 times better than anything else out there."
'We're all Americans'
"I'm fiscally conservative," Loiacono says. "But to me, this whole party thing is a little mixed up." After all, he says, "we're all Americans."
He's a Midwestern boy, raised in Michigan by parents who were registered Democrats. He thinks that he may have been a Democrat, back when he was 18. He couldn't say for sure, but if his parents were . . .
He describes himself as moderate, but not a politico. Definitely not a politico. He's a producer - he's especially proud of creating Animal Planet's "Faithful Friends" series - whose clients have included Warner Bros. and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon. The idea for TeaPartyHD began when Loiacono was asked to film a few videos for the National Fiscal Conservative PAC. At the time he wasn't quite sure what a PAC was. The more research he did, the more he thought that the tea party movement didn't just need a series of videos, it needed its own channel.
He has his own full-service studio in San Diego, where he lives with his wife. When TPHD is not on the road, it films there.
Sitting in a lobby outside the Hart hearing room - still within earshot of the senators' speeches inside - Loiacono says he sees TeaPartyHD as a chance to "cross the barriers" of politics; the site proudly welcomes Americans "regardless of race, creed, color or party."
Then one of his crew members approaches him with a concern: He's afraid that the mikes aren't picking up dialogue the way they should. Loiacono politely excuses himself to address the problem, doing his part to create a space where every voice can be heard and people can look one another (almost) in the eye.