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Blackline TV goes live with its iPad-optimized, HTML5 magazine


HTML5 is fast becoming an attractive solution for content producers that want to target mobile consumers without limiting their reach to one platform. Done properly, HTML5 can target iPads, Android tablets, mobile phones and desktop users with minimal effort. It's a strategy that magazines and other digital publishers are increasingly adopting.

Just this week, The Financial Times said it's abandoning its iPad app and replacing it with an HTML5 version. It's not just the leading publishers adopting HTML5; upstart magazine producer Blackline TV is using the same strategy.

Known for its satirical commentaries and humorous skits, Blackline TV is now turning its attention towards a digital magazine. The first version debuted on Tuesday in an HTML5 format that's compatible with the iPad. This maiden release is for iPad owners only, but upcoming versions will target Android and other platforms.

We talked with Nonso Christian Ugbode, Lerone D. Wilson and Robert Pinderhuze, the trio behind Blackline's special brand of humor, and found out more about the inner workings of Blackline TV, the new Blackline Magazine and their experience with HTML5. Read on for the full interview anc click through to check out their new iPad magazine.

Q. So tell me your history, how did you guys get started with Blackline TV?

A. Someone once asked me to describe Blackline in a word, so I said "Blackline." Then they allowed me 4 words, and I said "It's not that serious." Honestly, if I had five I would've said "It's really not that serious," which is more accurate. The foundation of what we do, whether in our tablet based magazine, podcast, or through social media is mock the people, institutions, ideas, and events that commit the cardinal sin of taking themselves too seriously.

It's not surprising that the origins of Blackline began in the upper echelons of New York's elitist private universities. Co-founders Nonso Christian Ugbode and Lerone D. Wilson found that they were the only ones in their classes at New York University's film school who found the term "Best Boy" 1000 times more entertaining than the actual job description (especially when said in a lingering, effeminate voice), and never fully understood exactly what "Mis en Scene" was because to do so would only occur after running out of jokes at the expense of the French (this has not yet occurred).

Later on, Lerone D. Wilson and Robert Pinderhuze established a similar rapport at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism when they found that they were the only ones who considered making jokes about Oprah Winfrey's beau Stedman an adequate use of classroom time during reporting exercises. Shortly thereafter, the trio decided that their elitist education could be put to better use. Rather than wasting their talents and abilities attracting attention, laughter, and plenty of jeers at New York City's bars, restaurants, and cinemas, they soon realized after watching Spiderman (the one with Toby Maguire, not the awesome 90's cartoon) that "with great power comes great responsibility," and thus pledged to use their powers for good rather than evil. At that moment Blackline was born.

Blackline exists today after failing as a blog, then a television concept, then another blog, chilling for a while, then coming back for another great adventure as a tablet based magazine and podcast. Perhaps this stunning success is a product of their overarching governing principal; take everything we collectively have learned through hard work and stringent coursework, and do the opposite. Some say this is foolishness, others say this is utter foolishness. Regardless of who is correct, one fact remains; it is Blackline.

Q. You're well-known for your comedy podcast. Do you use Macs, iPads or iPhone in the production process? If so, what's your hardware/software setup?

A. So many jokes to tell about our shoddy initial setup! But we'll spare you. The whole process is now very efficiently Mac-enabled. We use a 17" MacBook Pro for recording, and everything plugs into that: studio-grade microphones, mixer boards, noise-cancelling USB adapters, everything. We could podcast from the moon with that thing with no issues.

For software we're on Garageband version 6.0.2 right now; it's always been a solid choice for recording, some great intuitive templates particularly if you record music as well. Makes it easier to go back and forth between project types. Wilson likes to do the editing on Soundtrack; he likes the increased amount of control and finesse it gives the final product.

We started out using our iPhones to reference live links during the podcast, but recently we've found the iPad is great for having our program rundown sheet close at hand during the show. Both iPad and iPhone are great for browsing during the show, for when you have disagreements or challenges, you can search and find your answer and still keep the conversation flowing.

Thank goodness for AirPlay. By the time the podcast is live on Monday it's playing all over my apartment while I'm getting set to head out for work; that's when you notice all the things you could have said better, or missed opportunities for jokes. We've also used the iPhone in a lot of random ways we never thought we would, from featuring Siri as a voice on the podcast for skits, to auto-tuning Robb's voice for Kanye West impressions.

Q. Why an online magazine? How will your humor translate over from audio to written form?

A. Design. It really is all about bringing a richer experience forward. Our goal is to create something you want to look at over and over again, something that will sit with you for a lot of lazy evenings or weekends. Moving to this format has definitely made our voice different, we find it allows us to be much more immersive in our story telling. Where we started on the blog was a great first phase, it allowed us a solid foundation on which to build more three-dimensional stories now. And we're having ideas we would have dismissed on the blog. There is a story about a Tetris piece on strike in here that we would never have run, it's not particularly topical even with the satire, but in a magazine format you're not thinking about that so much. You're there for a good story and that's what you get, so we are finding that the types of stories we tell are more universal stretching far beyond our heavily political roots. And the stories are funnier, at least we hope!

Q. Will the content mirror what you are doing on the podcast or will the magazine be completely different?

A. We've found that it's all related, we'll create a character for a skit on the podcast and all of a sudden that character gets a magazine sidebar, or even a fake commercial in the magazine, and then someone will think of jokes the character can say on twitter. We're finding the whole experience, from podcast to social media to magazine, gels so well organically that we can move ideas around between platforms and make them even richer.

Q. You chose HTML5 for the format of your magazine, instead of an iPad app. Why?

A. We wanted to stand out, and we wanted to be able to say whatever we wanted without waiting to hear if we'd get into this or that app marketplace. The app space is totally crowded anyway, we're betting on a native web trend that's about to pour out a lot of awesome stuff. But mainly it's because we wanted to be able to tell bad jokes about Steve Jobs.

Q. Were there any challenges to working with HTML5 and formatting it for the iPad?

A. The biggest challenge with regard to developing this as a web application is the fact that HTML5 is still not a standard. That is to say there are a lot of ways to make certain features work that have been hacked together based on what's possible now, and a day or a week from now our lives could be made much easier, or much worse when different device makers decide to change how their tablet OSes interact with their web browsers, and how their web browsers interact with and/or support various HTML5 and Javascript features and calls. Even aside from the code, it's great to have something that can potentially operate on so many devices - but building in support for so many devices is incredibly time consuming and difficult. For example in this issue we have a feature called "Maya Angelou's Icebox", where you're able to move words around on the famed poet's refrigerator door. It works great on iPad, which we designed it for, but on other devices two things start to happen. First, the images get resized based on the size/aspect ratio of the device's screen - which is very inconsistent across devices, then the interactive portion which is governed by Javascript, and the position of the tiles which is governed by CSS are called slightly differently by different devices. As a result the layout looks a little different each time. An iPad user for example will love it, but the user of an Android device with a smaller screen might wonder why all of the words are slightly right of center.

There are a few fixes that we can implement to promote a more standardized experience, but as you support more devices this becomes increasingly difficult and time consuming. It also doesn't help that our programming is performed solely by a gerbil. He's a decent enough coder, but his contract stipulates that he gets 8 hours of wheel time per day. As such, how can we in good faith ask him to sacrifice his hard earned wheel time to go bake in support for the Asus Transformer Pad TF300?

So in effect our biggest advantage is also our biggest problem. We love the openness and flexibility of developing this as a web app, but as we start implementing more and more features we end up having to drop support for some devices. It's a tough balance, but so far we have settled on first rewarding those who have the most money, and pay the most for their devices, the "job creators" if you will. So the magazine is currently 100% compatible with all iPads (the most expensive devices), and over the coming weeks and months we'll work on bolstering support for Android devices (which are about 75% compatible right now), down to Kindle Fire, or "The Poor Man's iPad" as we all call it in house.

Q. How will you deliver content to readers on a regular basis? With an iOS magazine, the content is downloaded automatically and the reader is alerted by a notification. How will users be alerted there's new content from your magazine?

A. Content will be updated regularly through the app that gets installed on your iPad, so you don't have to make a point of seeking out and downloading new versions of the magazine when they're released. But in the second part of that question you've hit on one of the major deficiencies that web apps have right now in terms of developing for tablet devices. Currently there isn't a way for websites to push information to devices in the same way that App Store apps can. So there won't be any device level indication that new content is ready.

In order to combat that, however, we're trying to create an immersive experience that doesn't solely involve the magazine. Yes, we want magazine readers, but we also have a weekly podcast that supplements the magazine that we'd like people to subscribe to, as well as Twitter accounts for not only Blackline, but a few characters from our stories and sketches. So we want people to be invested in the entire experience, which will aid in keeping them up to date on new issues and features. For example when you hear us mention the new issue on the podcast, or see a tweet from us or one of our characters, you'll know that all you have to do is click that same icon on your home screen to see the new issue. In a way, that almost even feels a bit more warm and genuine than a number appearing on top of an icon, or the cold OS dialogue box that a traditional app would employ.

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