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THE WEB, ETC | WEB SCOUT

They rose like a rocket and crashed with a boom

The video blog Rocketboom had advertising, a big audience and world domination in its sights. The split of its creative team has proven rancorous.

January 21, 2007|Richard Rushfield | Times Staff Writer

AS the rambunctious entertainers of the Internet make their plays for the showbiz big leagues, these overnight superstars are enjoying the standard introduction to Hollywood. Which means not just glad-handing agents and Kafkaesque "lunch meetings" but also the bitter falling-out with your partners from the 'hood, complete with morning-after mudslinging.

Take the case of the former partners in the popular video blog (or vblog) Rocketboom, who are now in the midst of a blood feud that has turned into the nastiest, highest-profile divorce yet to quake the Web. A wry, dead-on rendition of a network news show, featuring a comely, blond 20-something anchor offering scattershot deadpan around clips of "found news" from across the Net, Rocketboom showed the potential to adapt a traditional TV format to the Internet when it debuted in fall 2004. In the process it attracted an estimated 300,000 viewers a day -- more than many cable-news network shows -- and held a high-profile auction of its ad space on EBay, which drew a winning bid of $80,000. The site's quick success earned flavor-of-the-month media attention for its anchor, Amanda Congdon, and its creator-producer, a design and technology teacher named Andrew Baron.

And then, last July, the partnership broke up; Congdon left Rocket amid a hailstorm of acrimony that would make Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman proud. But coming from nowhere as they had, the pair had no clear script to follow in their break-up, no ritual of prenups and clearly defined intellectual property guidelines. And so, six months later, in what is likely a harbinger of things to come for many a Web team, the pair continue to sling invective at each other on message boards and blog entries across the Web. Bystanders, meanwhile, have mostly rolled their eyes at the level of animosity.

Reconstructing the history of Rocketboom through the eyes of its principals is a bit of a he-said/she-said proposition. In a series of interviews, both Baron and Congdon told of a partnership that enjoyed a brief creative flourish that soon morphed into a frenzy of activity, and then into an increasingly fraught working relationship, which led to the very public meltdown. In the lingering custody battle over the soul (and wallet) of Rocketboom, the former partners each accuse the other of betrayal, slander, bad faith and, worst of all, old-media values.

The trouble surfaced July 5, when at the height of the vblog's success, its hostess, rather than filing her usual segment, posted a video on a Blogspot page she called "Amanda Unboomed." In it she declared, "I apparently have been unboomed. Apparently my partner Andrew Baron is no longer interested in being my partner and since he owns 51% of Rocketboom and I only own 49% of Rocketboom, that's just something I'm kinda going to have to live with."

According to Baron, "She's left and painted me as a monster and I never got a chance to air my side." Describing what he saw as Congdon's ultimate betrayal in her abrupt exit, he said later, "It's so mixed up and I've started to think she, like, wasn't capable of doing something this horrible, so she's not really capable of doing something this evil or something like that, and I was thinking maybe it was her agent advising her to do all this, like they thought they wanted to separate her from me in Rocketboom months before but they were trying to transition out of it. All these kinds of things I can't help wonder because it seems so extreme."

"I don't know what he's talking about," Congdon responded, "because I didn't do anything. I just want this to be over with. It's been so drawn out. The sad thing is he just keeps going so public so things always say, 'In a dispute with her former partner.... ' It's just like, 'Leave me alone, Andrew!' "

Having been cast in Baron's brainchild after replying to a notice on Craigslist.com, being granted a just-shy-of-majority stake in the still theoretical enterprise (plus an initial 50 bucks per episode), the odd couple -- Congdon by her description is a highly organized Type A to Baron's freewheeling creative persona -- entered into what was a slightly awkward but highly productive partnership. After fits and starts, the Rocketboom formula was found. As Congdon described the collaboration, "He'd write half the script and I'd write the other half and we'd just make a transition.... We were creatively in tune."

But as links to their site spread, their fame grew and their options expanded, so too did the tensions between them. While many issues rankled the relationship (business plans, working hours, involvement with new partners and a revolving technical crew), at the heart of the growing chasm seems to have been Congdon's determination to move to Los Angeles. In L.A., she planned to pursue her show-biz career while maintaining at least part of the Rocketboom production.

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