Celebrity Internet schemes pay off

Forget AOL Time Warner, did anyone notice that Ed McMahon has taken to the Internet? Can Kathie Lee Gifford be far behind?

Forget AOL Time Warner, did anyone notice that Ed McMahon has taken to the Internet? Can Kathie Lee Gifford be far behind?

Ever since this dot.com thing began, it's been driving certain celebrities crazy that barely literate colleagues like William Shatner are making many millions and getting on TV all the time for simply going along with an Internet scheme. So certain other aging celebrities are now jumping on the bandwagon.

The latest is Ed McMahon, you know, Johnny's sidekick, the guy who is unfortunately associated with one of those big sweepstakes deals that state attorneys general have been cracking down on. So Ed, who is not even listed in AltaVista's list of cybercool celebrities, has teamed up with Victory Entertainment Corp. and Microsoft for something called Next Big Star (http://www.nextbigstar.com). You see, many, many years ago, when you were probably a child, McMahon spent 12 years hosting "Star Search," a televised talent show.

Now, McMahon is trying to cash in on Web metrics, but there's something sort of second rate about the whole thing. Consider the home page. "Ever wonder how your favorite television star, comedian or recording artist got to the top?" a prompt asks. "Listen to our celebrity friends and learn how you can do it too." Only the list of "celebrity friends" is pretty pathetic, mostly a bunch of second tier TV "personalities like Lou Bega, Ivan Sergei, and David Boreanaz, whoever he is.

But the really pathetic part of this particular online pitch is the bottom line. Next Big Star works like this. If you think you have some kind of talent -- and who doesn't -- you're supposed to send them a videotape of yourself performing whatever talent you claim and a $19.95 entry fee to an address in Orlando, Florida (where else?). The Web site talks about "over 1 million dollars in cash and prizes." Even assuming that the prizes Next Big Star is giving away are worth $1 million, it's not hard to imagine that this particular deal will bring in a lot more than that. Indeed, all they have to do is get 50,000 entries, and they've already equaled the amount of the prize considerations. Neat, right? With Uncle Ed about to embark on a 40-city bus tour to promote this contest, you can bet they will get a lot more than 50,000 entrants.

Even taking pecuniary things like this aside, this kind of thing is troubling, because it reminds me of the many travelling "model portfolio" companies that have long preyed on the gullibility of the public. These companies, most of which are online now, take a fee from doting parents who think their kids are good looking enough to be models. The company might take some headshots, collect hundreds of dollars in fees, and put the pictures into a "model portfolio" supposedly scrutinized by modeling agencies. If any model or actor ever became a professional this way, I'm not aware of it. Ditto with this kind of thing. A TV program like "Star Search" did occasionally help budding stars display their talent, including Lara Flynn Boyle; Sinbad; Dennis Miller; Rosie O'Donnell; Jenny Jones; Shanice; Sawyer Brown;Martin Lawrence, and Drew Carey. But that was a regularly scheduled TV show that offered exposure to millions of viewers.

How is "Next Big Star" going to achieve that? Mention is made in the press release about national TV exposure, but nowhere is the TV outlet identified, so we'll presume a discreet infomercial buy is planned. The press release notes that the final winners will only be showcased online, through MSN.com and NextBigStar.com. You have to wonder how that kind of exposure can make anyone a "star." Maybe I'm being cynical, but when I think about many people who will go out and spend hundreds of dollars to purchase video cameras and lighting and other paraphernalia to make their tapes for this thing, it doesn't sit right with me.

Ed, I'm sure there's another Priceline out there that wants your mug selling their product. Wouldn't that be a better alternative? And you get stock options with those fries.

Which celebrity sites actually have something good to say? Let me know in the talkback below.