Celebs log onto the Internet

From MTV's Dr. Drew to 20/20's Hugh Downs, old media names are seeking freedom in online ventures.

First the Internet lured CEOs of traditional companies with the lure of big money. Now traditional-media celebrities are taking the leap, but the reasons might have more to do with creative freedom than the promise of financial gains.

In recent months several media personalities have chosen to make the Internet their next project. The latest was Hugh Downs, a longtime anchor of ABC's news weekly 20/20, who will join iNEXTV to create political-news programming.

Lou Dobbs, anchor of CNN's MoneyLine, left last month to help set up Space.com, a site devoted to news and information about space exploration. Dobbs cited his life-long interest in space travel and exploration as the major reason for the new position. And when Peter Arnett left CNN he joined a startup called ForeignTV.com. Former Surgeon-General Dr. C. Everett Koop is involved in the prominent medical-information site Drkoop.com. A rival site called drdrew.com plans to rely on the contributions of Dr. Drew Pinsky of MTV's Loveline to build a younger audience.

A well-financed startup like drdrew.com or iNEXTV can offer magnificent rewards to top-level talent. But there's also the promise of something even more valuable: the flexibility to do things that would never have made it onto network television.

"[Downs] had things he wanted to do on the Internet that weren't going to happen on the networks," said Edward Bramson, chief executive of iNEXTV. "The paradigm is basically that there are quite a few people that have interesting content that's latent, and we want them coming to us to get on the air."

Downs will at first be contributing to the site's "Executive Branch TV," which offers C-SPAN-style coverage of executive-branch hearings and briefings. But Bramson said Downs has some ideas that could become part of a planned lifestyle channel.

Dobbs and Downs were unavailable for comment.

Building online personality
San Francisco shock-jock Alex Bennett left radio station Live 105 after it was purchased by Westinghouse/CBS Radio, and a few months later started broadcasting 30-minute daily shows on Radiofreejack.com. This year he joined startup Play TV, which Webcasts a range of quirky homemade video programming.

Bennett says he is mainly fascinated by the experimental nature of Web media: "It's not just television on the Internet. You have to look beyond that, you have to ask what it really is. We've been doing this for six months and we've found out things we never expected."

For Internet companies, well-known faces can contribute something that's mostly lacking online: personality.

If given the right spin, a celebrity name is like a trusted brand, automatically drawing interest in a particular type of service or content -- regardless of the medium. The role of the Web site is to figure out how to best use the medium to give users a satisfying experience, according to Curtis Geisen, CEO of Drdrew.com.

To Geisen, a good Web site should offer a blend of services like e-commerce and information, but the defining feature is an involved community. "The way to bring a celebrity online is not just to translate what they're doing to the Web," he said. "You've got to use the celebrity as a catalyst for a community. If you have a strong celebrity brand you can really own a community, the way Martha Stewart owns tasteful living now."

Dr. Drew has made a reputation with younger audiences with medical advice, mostly focused on sex and drugs. But Geisen said the site, which launches September 15, hopes to move beyond medical advice to become a top youth destination, with strong pop-culture content and e-commerce services.

Creating new stars
Will the Internet end up generating its own celebrities the way television and radio have? The process may have already started with people like Matt Drudge, whose Drudge Report is notorious for publishing unsubstantiated rumors -- but also broke the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal after Newsweek decided to shelve the story.

While Drudge may not exactly be a role model, some say his path from bedroom Web site to television host will inevitably be repeated in the future.

"We're creating our own stars, but we're doing it in a very Internet way," said Bennett. "Your next door neighbor may be tomorrow's next broadcast star."


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