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Virgin Net webcast events do carry advertising and, says James Cronin, Virgin's new technology manager, "we've had some effective sponsorship in kind.
For our webcast from V98, for example, One-to-One gave us some of the mobile phone technology we used to webcast from the crowd and JVC gave video kit." AOL has taken a different approach, tending to view celebweb as wholly a service to members.
In "going for the biggest possible targets and hoping to get lucky", as Mac Anna puts it, MSN had nothing to lose.
"Without wishing to be disrespectful, a webcast for Titanic uses more or less the same resources as [one for] Lee Hurst." Other UK-based ISPs have been more tentative in their approach to celebweb chats.
"No one else was really considering the possibility that chat could provide the commercial edge," claims Mac Anna.
Celebrities would be the draw, but chat would actually be the business.
"And we decided to make the medium sing." If all this sounds like opportunity pie, it is.Which was all good, uhm, exposure for George Michael.Unsurprisingly, AOL, Virgin Net and Compu Serve have also got in on the celebweb act, hosting and sponsoring web chats with stars as diverse as Noel Gallagher and Uri Geller.They offer both the celebrity machine - publicists, record or film companies, merchandisers - and the participating Internet service provider enormous opportunities for promotion, merchandising and ad sales while adding value to their web sites.
According to Niall Mac Anna, special events producer for Microsoft Network, which, together with record company Aegean, orchestrated the George Michael chat, the event added "thousands" of new users to MSN's portal site, MSN Start, as well as hiking sales of CDs and merchandise on both MSN and Aegean's retail sites.
It gave Michael direct, if virtual, contact with his fans at a sensitive moment in his career, and in what is often perceived as a more intimate format than radio, print or TV.