In Depth

Adalian Column: Rosie Stakes Her Claim on the Internet

She’s a polarizing figure beloved by some and loathed by nearly as many. And the decision to put her in charge of a difficult assignment has predictably polarized opinion.

 Rosie O’Donnell

CRACKLIN' ROSIE Ms. O’Donnell posts frequent video essays on her Web site, Rosie.com.

Sorry, Hillary haters, I’m not talking about your gal. Go back to lurking in the comments section of National Review Online’s The Corner.

Actually, wait: Far-right types might want to stick around. Because this column is about another one of your favorite people: Rosie O’Donnell.

After a year or so away from the TV spotlight, Ms. O’Donnell is set to make a very splashy return to the small screen this week. She’s hosting and executive producing “Rosie Live,” a variety special that will double as a back-door pilot for a series.

It’s a mission that makes taking over the State Department look pretty simple by comparison.

Sure, variety-competition hybrids are huge on TV right now, from “American Idol” to “Dancing With the Stars.” But the old-school, “let’s put on a show” format that thrived for so long on television? It’s pretty much been extinct for the past 20 years.

No wonder industry insiders I talked to last week couldn’t predict whether “Rosie Live” will turn out to be an early holiday present for the Nielsen orphans at NBC, or yet another lump of coal in Ben Silverman’s Paul Smith-designed stocking.

Ms. O’Donnell, however, appears completely calm about the risks involved in her latest endeavor. Obama-level calm.

“You really can’t [worry],” she told me earlier this month. “People are either gonna watch it or they’re not.”

That’s not just the syndication riches from “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” talking.

While her super-successful daytime talk show has afforded Ms. O’Donnell access to all sorts of cash—I believe the technical term is “screw-you money”—the zen exterior she presents seems the result of something else. Ms. O’Donnell has figured out that she, and other performers seeking an outlet for their talents, are no longer at the mercy of the TV gods. At least not completely.

Through her Rosie.com Web site, Ms. O’Donnell is basically producing her own virtual talk show, one that allows her to entertain and communicate with fans whenever and however she chooses.

The blog section of the site, of course, functions like any blog, with Ms. O’Donnell sounding off on whatever’s on her mind. It’s the digital version of a monologue, a never-ending “Hot Topics.”

But Ms. O’Donnell also interacts with her fans in a way few celebrities at her level do. She responds to countless questions from readers on an almost daily basis. Her replies are part comedy, part commentary, part Hints From Heloise.

What’s more, Ms. O’Donnell posts frequent video essays on her site, many of which are not dissimilar to segments you’d see on a TV talk show—crafting how-tos, performance bits, etc. When she wanted to promote “Rosie Live,” the first bit of footage from rehearsal premiered not on “Entertainment Tonight” but on Rosie.com.

Ms. O’Donnell actually is something of a celebrity pioneer on the Internet. She had a major presence on AOL back in the mid-1990s, even though execs at Telepictures back then apparently weren’t quite sure “what online was,” as she remembers it. “That didn’t bode well for the big Time Warner-AOL merger.

“So when I left my [daytime] show, I thought, ‘How can I make an online presence that feels a little bit like a talk show but where I can control the faucet of how many I do and when I do it and what I share?’ Because the thing about having to do a syndicated show that airs 39 weeks a year is, whether you’re up for it or not, you have to go.”

Now if Rosie feels like pulling a Garbo, she can disappear for a few days without fear of being in breach of contract. If she wants to taunt The Donald or a certain conservative co-host of “The View,” she needn’t worry about the wrath of advertisers (or of The Barbara).

“I think it’s eventually going to be the only way that people get and receive information,” Ms. O’Donnell said.

And yet, Ms. O’Donnell hasn’t given up on television. For now, at least, she realizes that while the medium may be “a dinosaur,” as she puts it, it’s still a T. Rex when it comes to reaching a mass audience with big-time entertainment.

“It’s still the [medium] most easily consumed by the most amount of people,” she said. “There’s no way you can ever translate hits on a blog to national viewing simultaneously of a live show. There’s something exciting about that.”