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Net not ready for showbiz

A panel of Hollywood's new media moguls agree that the Web isn't an entertainment medium yet and that their industry is partially to blame.

LOS ANGELES--A panel of Hollywood's new media moguls agreed today that the Web isn't ready as an entertainment medium and that their own industry is as much to blame as is evolving technology and the bandwidth bottleneck.

"We've got an enormous pool of talent, but Hollywood has been slow to develop Web content," said panel moderator Mariana Danilovic of KPMG Peat Marwick, global business consultant and cosponsor of the day's proceedings at the Internet World trade show here.

The panelists agreed that the Web eventually will become an entertainment vehicle, but content providers such as movie studios must avoid the pitfall of trying to squeeze it into a television or film model.

"People at their computers want to do something, not watch something," said Mark Jeffrey, vice president of PalaceSpace Development, which provides online community software and created the Palace chat community.

To be successful, online Hollywood content must exploit known brands, focus on interactivity, be easy to learn, and give people a strong sense of community, said Rob Tercek, vice president of online programming for Sony Pictures Entertainment.

But Tercek questioned Hollywood's ability to do so: "The industry just isn't set up for two-way flow. Hollywood is used to saying, 'We're making a show and you guys watch,' but that paradigm's not going to make it."

Another panelist put it this way: "We need to create a feeling of 'I can affect you, you can affect me' among online users," said Darci Rose Pierce, director of production for MGM Online. One successful example of people affecting other people is online gaming.

Lack of high-bandwidth delivery was also cited as a stumbling block to mass-market Hollywood-style Web development. But Jeffrey, who worked at various Fox Studio branches before the Palace, said that all the bandwidth and hard drive space in the world won't help if major entertainment companies don't change their perceptions of the Web: "They think it's just another distribution channel."

It is tempting to compare the Web to TV, however, given that they both started with news and sports as the major draws, said MGM's Pierce. Another panelist believed that those two staples of Net content would fuel innovation.

"You'll see enhancements of those traditional categories before the content drifts out to more interactive [productions]," said Lewis Henderson, head of new media at the William Morris Agency.

Despite their insistence on fitting new media into old categories, the entertainment moguls will remain a force, according to one analyst.

"They're the largest copyright holders in the world, and the value of those copyrights continues to increase," said Paul Noglows of investment firm Hambrecht & Quist. "The talent, however, may come from elsewhere."

The movie studios' famous reluctance to risk money on unproven faces and concepts also translates to the Web. The recent demise of the Microsoft Network's original online programming and the reorganization of AOL's Greenhouse have contributed to that reluctance, said Tercek.

Instead of creating original content, Sony is focusing on online versions of well-known game shows such as Jeopardy and the promotion of popular films that will eventually be spun off into TV series, sequels, games, and merchandise.

The fallow market for creative content has caused small Web content producers to move to corporate intranet development, said the Palace's Jeffrey.

Tercek and moderator Danilovic echoed that concern and observed that creative Web content developers are increasingly hard to find in the Los Angeles area. When asked what was wrong with working with developers in Silicon Valley, Tercek replied that he travels north twice a week. "But it's always nice to work locally," he added.