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MSN follows TV's lead

The online service is increasingly resembling a television network as it cancels shows and shuffles employees.

When the new Microsoft Network launched, everyone commented on how much it resembled television.

They didn't know the half of it. Sure, the 2 million-member network comes to you from your computer, but don't let that fool you: The executives who run MSN are being treated a lot more like TV producers than programmers and engineers, subject to the vagaries of ratings and other subjective criteria.

In other words, as shows are constantly canceled, renewed, added, and contracted, producers will find themselves pounding the pavement for new employment.

In its first round of programming changes, MSN will drop five to ten of its 26 shows and add at least 14 new ones by the summer, said Larry Cohen, group product manager for MSN.

With the cancellations will go workers who were hired under contract specifically to work on the show, Cohen said. MSN employs a mix of contract and permanent workers depending on the job. He added vehemently that MSN is not laying off anyone and that at least some of the contract employees could expect to be rehired on other projects.

Fewer than 100 workers were let go from their contracts, according to MSN, and some of those may have been hired back. In other words, there's a continual flux in the number of contract workers.

Cohen would not specify which shows were getting dumped, but sources confirmed that they include comedy game show 15 Seconds of Fame, history program Retrospect 360, and soap opera 475 Madison Avenue.

He also would not say exactly what the new shows would be. MSN previously announced that it is planning to add new family-oriented programs based on Jim Henson Interactive Properties, with which it has an exclusive arrangement. MSN also has a relationship with Paramount, so expect programs based on their properties.

"By the time summer's around, you'll see a group of new shows on the network," Cohen said.

MSN is not the only content provider trying to figure out what turns Netizens on. Anyone providing content and programming online--from companies like beleaguered American Cybercast, which produced Web soap The Spot, to mega-production houses like America Online--are having to readjust their offerings all the time.

That's because Netizens are a finicky group. And the fact that the Net runs 24 hours a day means that Web surfers expect constant change, Cohen added.

But Web sites do have one distinct advantage over television. While TV executives anxiously await their Nielsen ratings, online executives need look no further than their Webmaster for hit counts that can often identify exact users.

Cohen said MSN officials used hit counts to make their decisions. But they also took into account other factors, such as whether they felt a show was "fresh." They may even chose to temporarily drop a show just to provide change.

"It's part of keeping the network fresh and new," Cohen said.

Another aspect of the Web provides unheard-of flexibility. While television is wedded to seasons based on school schedules and other regular cycles, thus far Web shows appears to lack any logical ties to the calendar.

There's a lot of flexibility that we have. That's the beauty of this medium," Cohen said. Cancellations and additions considered a "natural flow of the business."

Cohen added that the show cancellations do not represent a cutback. "We're investing more than ever in this business, both in networking and in marketing," he said.