Rise of the Techpot
They're savvy, smart and - collective gasp - women
The Internet is giving rise to a new class of on-air talent - the hot nerd. Women like Cali Lewis, Kirsten Sanford, Veronica Belmont, iJustine and Jessica Corbin are becoming Internet news stars not only because they're good-looking, but also because they can dismantle a motherboard and kick your ass at Halo 3, too.
The past year has brought a flurry of tech-centric newscasts to the Web that draw hundreds of thousands of viewers each day. And they have one thing in common: They're fronted by beauty and brains. Hot nerds are taking over the broadband airwaves because the early adopters, young men and dot-com millionaires who consume online video in droves enjoy watching smart, good-looking women deliver the news.
That's not necessarily surprising, but the trend is another sign that Web video is maturing and starting to emulate the traditional TV world, where the majority of on-air talent are women and the majority of executives are men. But like most things Internet-related, there are twists.
For one thing, most of the high-profile female hosts in the online video world, like Corbin, Sanford, Belmont and Lewis, are noted experts in their fields, not just talking heads. Sanford has a Ph.D. in neurophysiology, Lewis has been coding Web pages since she was 14, and Belmont previously worked as a producer at CNET and is a video game expert.
"In order to be successful in the new-media world, you need a fundamental understanding of the content you are presenting, which is not always a requirement for success in traditional media," says Jim Louderback, CEO of Revision3, which creates and distributes about a dozen online TV shows.
Revision3 recently launched "Pop Siren," a half-hour weekly series that looks at trends in technology, science, culture and lifestyle. The show's hosts include Sarah Lane, who is also a producer and head of programming and production at Revision3; Corbin, a former TechTV host; and Sanford, who is also the creator and star of the online show "Food Science" and the podcast "This Week in Science." Advertisers include GoDaddy and Netflix.
The show follows that traditional TV formula: The hosts are female and good-looking.
That's no surprise, says Jordan Levin, CEO of digital production studio and talent shop Generate, and the former CEO of The WB. "On local television there is a strong drive to get ratings on local news, and in this early stage of Web video there is a strong desire to amass views. It's the oldest rule in the book: Attractive women giving you information is the best way to get both sexes to tune in."
Despite their obvious knowledge and qualifications, some female hosts still run into naysayers who suggest they trade on their looks to get ahead. "Last year I was having a nice conversation with a male colleague when he said casually: 'Some guys here don't like you because you use your looks to your advantage,'" recalls video blogger Amanda Congdon. "And I just sat there for a second because I didn't feel I was 'using' anything. I was just showing up and being me."
Online producers have found that women prefer to watch intelligent women, and "so do men," says Alex Lindsay, chief architect of Pixel Corps, an online video production shop in San Francisco. A key difference in the online world is that most hosts also write their shows and are experts in their field.
Take Kirsten Sanford. She writes both the "Pop Siren" segment and the scripts for "Food Science." She's also an entrepreneur who is paid on a contract basis or via revenue-sharing for her online video work and has creative control over her shows. "We are seeing a lot more women realize they can create content they are interested in, even more so than in television, because it is so much easier to start doing a podcast," Sanford says.
Another key difference in the new-media world is the level of upkeep and interaction required from the host. Sanford says that she is a regular on social networking sites including MySpace, Pownce, Twitter and Facebook. "If people feel there is a communication going on, there is much more loyalty," she says.
Cali Lewis, who created and stars in "GeekBriefTV," says that she still tries to answer virtually every e-mail she receives about the show. She says each episode draws about 200,000 downloads: "I spend a huge portion of my time talking to anyone who writes," she says. That's a big difference from the TV world, where it can be tough even to find an e-mail address for an anchor or reporter, much less get a response.
Lewis started "GeekBriefTV" in 2005 with her husband, who shoots the show. Then she partnered with online video aggregator PodShow, which distributes and sells ads for the show and also pays Lewis a fee to produce it. Advertisers have included Hewlett-Packard, GoDaddy and Nokia.
There's also Veronica Belmont, who recently made the jump from the popular geek-culture Web show "Mahalo Daily" to become a co-host of Revision3 show "Tekzilla," which focuses on how to make technology work better for the viewer. In addition to her Revision3 gig, she also blogs at veronicabelmont.com and is an online brand in her own right.
Like the others, Belmont writes her shows. "When people see women on camera, they assume we don't know what we are talking about in technology, and they think, 'Someone must be writing her script,'" she says.
Belmont also happens to be a whiz at the video game Rock Band and has performed at South by Southwest in Rock Band competitions. She walks the walks and talks the talk.
"We want to put smart people on-air on these video shows that the audience connects with," Louderback said. "They don't have to be female, they don't have to be attractive, but they do have to be smart, knowledgeable and know what they are talking about."