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Celeb chats still sexy sell

“If you were putting on lipstick and it went up your nose, what would you do?”

“In your opinion, what person had the most impact — positive or negative — on the 20th century?”

Neither was a question the guests would likely get on a TV talk show — the first, coming to a cast member of the new indie feature “Origin of the Species,” because it’s too silly, the second, directed at Hugh Hefner holding forth from the Playboy Mansion, because it’s too serious.

But both queries typify the do-it-yourself dialectic found in Web chats, a digital medium coming into its own as an increasingly standard component of publicity tours.

But perhaps, given advances in multimedia software, they shouldn’t even be called “chats.” For Jonas Heller, who produces many of them as vp for Box Top Live — the production wing of Web design firm Box Top — they’re “live events.” “We’re trying,” he says, “to create an audio/visual experience in conjunction with chat.”

Rarely is chat still confined to its original technical parameters, the old type-and-response format with questions and answers displayed on a monitor. Sound is usually added, and often, pictures — “all embedded in one screen,” as Heller points out.

But though these “live events” usually originate from studios, and are moderated by hosts who can have Web personalities of their own, that doesn’t mean this is simply TV carried on a different wire: Those “embedded” sub-screens, for instance, can hold film clips — “Ren and Stimpy” creator John Kricfalusi wanted to experiment with partially animating the computer screens he guested on — which “viewers” can click on and off at will, pacing the show themselves.

Sometimes these “events” piggyback actual television, as in the case of A&E’s “Live by Request” concert series. Developed by Tony Bennett and manager son Danny, the cable net’s series of crooning specials allows viewers to request their favorite songs via an 800 number. Webheads can likewise e-mail requests, which in their case, represents the culmination of an interactive process beginning with the artist making him or herself available for a chat two or three days prior to the concert itself.

A&E supervising producer Kris Slava says the Web link-up gives viewers “a bigger all-over experience,” citing not just the successful chats, but the Website’s broadcast of multiple camera angles during the concert itself, along with real-time access to lyrics, bios, and other material.When they get “tired of typing,” Slava says, “then they’re turning around and watching the telecast.”

For Steve Sterling, executive in charge of development for “Request” for NY-based Automatic Productions, making talent “interactively available” to fans in advance pays off: “They cross-promote each other,” he says. Further, they can “look for sponsors for each (medium’s) program.”

For Elizabeth Sherman, director of programming and development for Warner Bros. On-Line, the task isn’t so much cross-promoting as it is doing some in-house convincing: “The TV people have paved the way,” she says, noting that WB’s television stars were initially more comfortable making themselves available online than the studio’s feature players.

But “every time our talent does a chat, they love it,” she says, while also pointing out that successes like Rosie O’Donnell’s “Interactive Mondays” have helped to normalize the technology as a familiar part of the entertainment landscape.

How do the guests feel about it? “It’s not as spontaneous as radio or TV,” allows a pajama-clad Hefner, after doing his first-ever hour-long chat session, produced right out of his library by BoxTop for the bunny empire’s growing chain of internet services. Still, he allows, “You feel like you’re talking to the world.”

As for what he told the world about the biggest negative influence on the 20th century, Hef picked Einstein, owing to the continuing legacy of split atoms.

Another great 20th century legacy will soon be coming to the Web: TV commercials. “In June,” Heller says, “we’re launching two (Web chat) shows that have 30s and 60s embedded in them.” As in 30 and 60 second television spots.

Which means, even net conversations will be pausing for a word from their sponsor. Can there be a surer sign of Web chat’s arrival as a format?

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