Did Pop.com, Psuedo Kill Content Star?

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Spielberg has failed. It's not the first time. Remember1941? But the shuttering earlier this month of Pop.com-which earned its pedigree from the backing of Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Ron Howard-was particularly stunning.

And it isn't just about the $60 million drained during its year-long launch process.

The demise of Pop.com comes amid crises at other high-profile made-for-Internet video producers and distributors. Pseudo Programs, an ultra-avant-garde producer, tanked last week. Shockwave and Scour have cut back their Net video initiatives, all on the heels of the debacle of Digital Entertainment Network (DEN), which a year ago was being touted as the prototype for future online programming.

What's going on here? To some degree, these misbegotten digital-programming ventures are plagued by managers who are young, inexperienced or simply clueless about the different rules for the online environment. It's hard to call Spielberg, Howard, Mike Ovitz or other Hollywood moguls "clueless," but when it comes to digital, interactive programming, that may be the best term.

To be completely modern, let's also blame it on the system. All these ventures were being built to work in a dial-up environment, recognizing the reality of the current distribution structure. All featured (or plan to offer) services into the high-speed world. But thumbnail-sized, herky-jerky video is simply awful, no matter how compelling the topic.

No wonder audiences steer clear of this material. Although Pop.com has not confessed that its abysmal business plan (or lack thereof) was the real reason for pulling the plug, it's easy to point the finger at inadequate technology for the continuing failures of original online-video channels.

Pop.com claimed audiences were unready to support original entertainment. What a cop out, since the secretive outfit never actually made it to market.

The site was due to debut last spring, but Pop.com said it needed more time to entice big-name talent to create original short programs, usually one to six minutes in length. In keeping with the Hollywood motif, the production costs were built along traditional studio styles-not the new economics of Web content.

The faltering Web advertising and sponsorship sector-intended to be Pop.com's financial support-turned out to be far weaker than envisioned.

Broadband operators are in a position to control the pace of the broadband-content business. That's a reason to keep an eye on the original programs that Excite@Home and several DSL providers are supporting.

The recent spate of online-video cutbacks is not turning everyone off from the opportunity. Artisan Entertainment, a hustling Hollywood distributor (thinkThe Blair Witch Project), has just set up a new-media unit:

Artisan Digital Media includes iArtisan, an investment fund which plans to put up to $50 million into rich-media content development.

Meanwhile, Interactive Video Technologies, a video-applications service provider that recently merged with Softcom, is leasing DEN's 6,100 square foot production center; IVT plans to use it for interactive video development and research.

The larger issue, of course, is the kinds of programs that will work on the emerging broadband platforms. Pseudo and others are aiming at young audiences-not necessarily the mainstay of cable households. Pseudo says 72 percent of its viewers are aged 16 to 34; three-quarters are male. Although none of these ventures breaks out specific college audiences, the on-campus availability of T-1 high-speed lines has made the shows more accessible in that terrain.

One way to tip-toe into this realm is through recycling existing short-form content, from cartoons to old soap operas and anthology shows. Granted, the hoary material might not appeal to younger audiences-and it certainly violates the goal of encouraging the creation of unique, made-for-streaming on-demand content.

At the same time, the shows-be they music videos or sitcom segments-could offer a low-cost opportunity to bring familiar and user-friendly programs through a new platform. If only as a test-of-concept, such programming could bring diverse and proven content to the interactive arena.

Producers, of course, fret about the copyright violations inherent in such digital distribution. Admittedly, there will be problems, but the bandwidth cries out for differentiation. Incumbent channels worry that their already shrinking audiences may be even further diluted if compelling content is available through such systems.

In that regard, lots of companies are gloating about the problems at Pop.com, Pseudo and Scour-problems that seem to validate the belief that the Web cannot produce appealing new video shows.

All it proves, however, is that Hollywood still knows how to overspend, and that the princes among old-line producers haven't figured out how to make it on the new "digital coast."

To write off this business just because Spielberg couldn't make it happen is to say pay TV was destined to failure just because those subscription-TV initiatives in the 1950s and '60s didn't pan out. Even Frank Biondi, the former cable mogul who is now investing in Internet ventures, recalls that Home Box Office (which he once headed) plunged into original programming with a polka show.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen awaits original high-speed variety shows.

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