Smile, you're on a bar Webcam

Around the country, bars are tapping the Internet to let people know when they're hopping--or dreadfully quiet. TMZ targets celebs with Webcams

On a recent Friday evening at the Key West bar Hog's Breath Saloon, Mike Murphy was enjoying a Miller Lite and potato skins in the company of his wife and friends.

Although not on reality television, his evening was broadcast online from the Florida bar's live Webcam, which showed the group occasionally waving to their grandkids at home in Indianapolis.

Reached via the bar's manager, Murphy talked to CNET News.com while still on camera: "We're down here on vacation, and we called and told their parents to go online because the grandkids were missing us. But by the end of it, the grandmas were all crying."

Bar Webcams are a growing phenomenon in cities like Boston, Denver, Chicago, San Diego, Minneapolis, and even tourist spots like Key West.

Of course, Webcams have been around for a long time. Remember JenniCam in the late '90s--the girl who broadcast her every move inside a dorm room via the Web? Fast-forward eight years, and locales like Hog's Breath are either taking the initiative to promote themselves via Web cameras or being recruited by several new bar promoters.

The idea is simple: with a Webcam installed in a bar or restaurant, potential customers can call up the live video stream online or by mobile phone so they can survey the crowd before venturing out.

People who want a quiet night can scout for a bar with a mellow scene, and those who want a lively night can look for the crowds. (Webcam bar promoters say it's typically a 50-50 split between the two camps.)

"When you go out, you want to know if it's busy or not. The camera's not made to spy on anyone or be incriminating," said Jen Renwick, a bartender at Park Place, a bar in Minnesota that set up two Webcams in recent months in partnership with a new company called Barseenlive.com. She said a couple of people have complained about privacy, but the majority of the response has been positive.

For the promoters, the online traffic equals money. Relatively new services like Barmigo and Barseenlive sell flat-rate subscriptions to the bars for licensing the Webcams and promoting their sites, and other upstarts like Baroptic.com are seeking to sell advertisements to liquor companies like Coors and Bacardi to run against those video streams.

The bar promoters won't disclose how much they are charging bars for the service, but at least one person said it can be as much as $500 a month.

Regarding privacy, bar promoters say the live video typically isn't a clear picture, doesn't include audio, and isn't recorded, so it's not archived. "In terms of legality, if you're in a public place, I can take your picture," said Jesse Newsome, founder and head of "hiring and firing" at Barmigo, based in Phoenix, Ariz.

"Our response is: If your wife or husband has enough suspicions to watch us, then they're going to drive down there and walk in on you," Newsome said.

Alice Cooperstown, a restaurant owned by rock star Alice Cooper in downtown Phoenix, put up two Webcams--one inside the restaurant and another above the nightclub stage--last year through a deal with Barmigo. (They're typically on all day until 12:30 a.m. on weekends.)

It's been a big hit with tourists, the restaurant's biggest constituency, said Leslie Criger, restaurant manager. People will even sit at the tables directly in front of the cameras, regardless of whether someone is serving those tables. "They'll say, 'No, no, can we sit here?...Our family is watching us from New Jersey,'" Criger said.

"They'll say, 'No, no, can we sit here because our family is watching us from New Jersey.'"
--Leslie Criger, manager, Alice Cooperstown

Conversely, people have been known to hide from the Webcams at times when they're at the restaurant with someone they shouldn't be. But Criger said you can't really tell who's who because it's not a clear image, unless it's the first couple of tables in front of the camera. Alice Cooperstown, for example, tells customers that they're being watched with a sign on the wall.

Barmigo, which launched in November 2005, sets up Webcams at bars and restaurants in Phoenix, including Alice Cooperstown. Newsome said the company was about to start Barmigo Boston, when the ailing economy in Arizona dampened his business.

Right now, Barmigo's cameras are in only three bars in Arizona, so Newsome augments his business by taking event requests. He would not disclose how much he charges bars monthly for the service, but his company will set up Webcams at events like a local beer festival, for a fee starting at $1,500.

Newsome said he's also talking to major restaurant chains that are interested in setting up Webcams. People are also increasingly interested in streaming their wedding live to relatives overseas, he said.

Of course, live Webcams aren't just limited to bars, restaurants, and adult content. Sites like Surfline let surfers get a preview of the local waves before leaving the house. EarthCam, an 11-year-old site, has set up several thousand Webcams around the world so that people can see natural wonders like Yosemite National Park. The company is even venturing into hot spots like poolside at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, according to Justin Camerlengo, marketing director of EarthCam.

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