Screamfests Are So Old Media

Bloggingheads' low-key political chat is sharp and surprisingly fun to watch

If I may borrow someone else's adaptation, soon everyone will be famous for 15 people on the Web. That can even be where wider-world fame starts, because the Net is both farm team and idea incubator from which traditional players steal new notions and talent. Since January, Viacom's (VIA ) VH-1 has joined with corporate sibling video-sharing site to air its round-up of online video, Web Junk 20. A woman named Tila Tequila, whose primary talent is wearing microscopic outfits, leveraged massive popularity on MySpace into a major label record deal.

Middle-aged pundits Mickey Kaus, author of the long-running blog kausfiles, and Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the centrist think tank New America Foundation, will never get massive on MySpace. But Wright's site, on which he and Kaus tangle remotely via webcams on matters political, may portend a next generation of political talk shows. "In theory," Wright says, "narrower niche audiences should work now." Not that he has tested a business model yet. Bloggingheads launched last November and is ad-free, though Wright says if the audience keeps growing, a partner or investor and then -- gasp -- ads could follow.

THE SITE IS SO STRENUOUSLY DEVOTED to eggheadedness that the aside "you are turning into Senator Moynihan" works as a joking inside reference to the late, famously erudite and self-referential New York pol. (Perhaps you had to be there.) Bloggingheads airs two or three hour-long face-offs each week, with Wright and Kaus appearing in tandem on one of them. But if the site has stars, it's them. "Star," in this context, doesn't mean Katie Couric. Here, the talent wear ungainly dangling earpieces, guzzle take-out coffee, and gnaw bagels on air. At times it's not entirely clear on these "diavlogs" whether Kaus has changed out of the sweatshirt he slept in the night before. "We wanted to distinguish this from what you see on TV," says the reliably deadpan Wright. "One way of driving the point home immediately is the fact we look like [expletive]."

Despite, or because of, these reasons, bloggingheads is great. It's smarter than the networks' Sunday morning talking-points recitations and more engaging than PBS' high-minded fare. What could be the future of political talk is so creaky and homemade it resembles public-access TV.

"The point is," says Kaus, "if I were having a phone conversation with Bob, this is what it would be like." That assumes that an hour-long phone conversation between old friends, which they are, meanders from the aftereffects of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's death to Newt Gingrich's Presidential aspirations. What stops this from being a Web analog to Ambien is...well, many things. It's actually funny, thanks to the rapport between the two men, which is apparent even when Kaus, not infrequently, ticks off Wright. (In one recent episode, a riled-up Wright sought to explain to Kaus "why you bring out the worst in me.") It also helps that they are both skilled debaters.

There is a phrase that describes what makes a hit on the Web, and that phrase is "weirdly compelling." No one could have imagined that looking at digital self-portraits online and posting comments under them was weirdly compelling until Friendster and then MySpace (NWS ) became two of the greatest venues for procrastination in the world since the Web itself. No one knew how weirdly compelling footage of people lip-synching could be until home videos of Gary Brolsma (the uninitiated can Google "numa numa") and two young Chinese men grimacing to the Backstreet Boys became huge Web hits. The same is true watching Wright get cranky whenever Kaus, in his well-honed contrarian shtick, contorts himself to find common ground with Ann Coulter. It turns out that the nontheatrical is theatrical, and a serious political conversation between two poorly dressed bloggers is, yes, weirdly compelling.

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By Jon Fine

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