The Web's newest talking head

What's Sam Donaldson up to with his thrice-weekly webcasts? Something very much like an old TV newscast.

Published September 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Before he got tied to a chair to work on his Sunday morning shtick, Sam Donaldson was probably the hardest-working man on television, the ABC reporter who was given the task of badgering the president (then Ronald Reagan) in the few moments it took him to walk to his helicopter. You would think that after years of this, ABC would have given the guy a break. Unfortunately, it has rewarded him with a thrice-weekly cybercast that might make him long for the good old days of chasing helicopters.

On Monday, premiered "," a webcast that is to run at 12:30 p.m. Eastern on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Donaldson has often been criticized in his career, but to my knowledge, no one has yet had occasion to feel sorry for him. Until now.

"What will you get here?" Donaldson asked rhetorically in his introduction. "First of all, you will get a television program."

One is glad that Donaldson, at least, sees this clearly. "" is indeed a television program -- a 15-minute video of Donaldson sitting at a desk, reading the news and interviewing an occasional guest. It has the flat look of a program that a major network might have aired 30 years ago -- and to top it off, on a typical computer screen it appears in a 2-by-2-inch window. That makes it 1/75th the size of the image on a 25-inch television screen.

Donaldson himself half-apologizes for the no-frills feel of this oddity. "We save on makeup," he tells us, "We don't have a big expensive set." Thanks; the shareholders must be real happy about this.

Donaldson began his program Monday with a roundup of morning news tidbits. This included a few words on the sadly comic plight of Merhan Nasseri, a visa-less Iranian stuck in the Paris airport for 11 years, and moved to a 60-second report on the White House's plans to trademark Clinton's historic slogans. ("Honor the past, imagine the future" -- if that doesn't sound familiar to you, don't lose sleep over it.) Next Donaldson moved to a display of mock sympathy for Dan Quayle, the Republican non-contender who officially dropped out of the presidential race Monday. Donaldson noted his own inadequate spelling and then challenged the audience to spell "potato" in a "cybersurvey." Fortunately, the poll is multiple choice, so the vast majority of the audience got it right.

OK, that was the first half of the show. Then there was a commercial break. (Really.) In the second half, Donaldson interviewed first William Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and then Robert Glaser, the CEO of RealNetworks. Glaser, Donaldson helpfully informed his audience, is the inventor of the technology that makes this broadcast possible. Glaser (who is the CEO of the company that provides the technology, but by no means the inventor) did nothing to disabuse Donaldson of this notion -- even though, in this context, if he had invented this technology, he might want to keep it a secret.

Each guest got to answer three questions. Donaldson tossed softballs and, unfortunately considering that he is television's most practiced master of the pointed follow-up questions, didn't follow up. Kennard got to talk about how he's sided with consumers. Glaser talked about kilobits, which he hopes will soon be streaming to the average desktop at 200 or 300 per second.

Donaldson is clearly out of his element here. He sounded a little like he was auditioning for a guest anchor spot on one of CNet's television shows. "It's not me that will draw you," Donaldson had already told the audience, "It's the information." Oh yeah? Then why is this thing called

Finally, mercifully, it all came to an end. Wednesday's show, Donaldson informed us, will be about the Kennedy assassination. Sept. 24 was the 35th anniversary of the release of the Warren Commission's infamous "lone gunman" report; in Wednesday's cybersurvey, Donaldson's audience will get to vote on the commission's conclusions.

The webcast cut off in mid-sentence, presumably before Donaldson had a chance to breathe a sigh of relief.

There are, perhaps, two lessons to be drawn from ABC's experiment. The first is that while it might be a good thing, in the long run, that the network is experimenting with new ways of delivering programming, there is no compelling reason why these experiments should be performed in the public eye. The technology isn't there yet (if Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald at 300 bits per second, the picture will still be jerky), and the vision isn't there either. The second lesson might be that for all their faults, the programmers at the leading networks do have their fingers on the pulse of the Web. Given enough time and practice, there is certainly an audience that will appreciate a diet of oddball news, tech commentary and Kennedy assassination theories. Whether they need to get it from a make up- and set-impoverished Sam Donaldson, however, is another question entirely.

By Mark Gimein

Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.

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