AOL ventures where others have failed: Hollywood
October 28, 1997
Web posted at: 3:20 p.m. EST (2020 GMT)
By Karen Kaplan
Over the last seven months, about 60 producers, artists,
actors, computer programmers and others have been camped out
in an avant-garde concrete building along Culver City,
California's multimedia row, drinking Diet Coke and eating
bagels and trying to do something that so far has stumped the
best and brightest of Hollywood and Silicon Valley: Create a
new genre of entertainment programming on the Internet.
Now, their efforts will be put to the test with the launch of
Entertainment Asylum on America Online (Keyword: Asylum) and
on the World Wide Web at http://www.asylum.com. Funded by
AOL, the nation's dominant online service, and with early
guidance from the late TV programming whiz Brandon Tartikoff,
Entertainment Asylum is shaping up as an important trial of
the notion that interactive, Net-based entertainment will
evolve into a major leisure-time diversion.
And the stakes are high for AOL's business strategy as well.
The company is trying to reposition itself as a media company
and a creator of original programming -- a crucial switch if
it is to be anything other then a big, low-margin provider of
Internet access services over the long run.
The precedents for programming ventures of this sort are not
encouraging: Even the mighty Microsoft, which a year ago had
grand ambitions for Hollywood-style online "shows," has found
it all but impossible to develop entertainment shows that
attract a significant audience.
Scott Zakarin, Entertainment Asylum's president of
programming, was responsible for a pioneering Web soap opera
called "The Spot," but the show's widely publicized success
turned out to be short-lived.
Yet many remain convinced that it's only a matter of time
before the Net either rivals -- or combines with --
television as an entertainment medium. How this happens is of
no small import in Los Angeles, whose talent pool in
technology and entertainment makes it a logical center for
the Internet entertainment industry.
Like hundreds of showbiz-oriented Web sites, Entertainment
Asylum features movie reviews, celebrity interviews and
television listings. Its major competitors are established
online brands such as Mr. Showbiz (http://www.mrshowbiz.com)
and E! Online (http://www.eonline.com), and its innovations
build on existing online entertainment concepts rather than
offering a fundamentally new approach.
But Zakarin's eclectic team aims to break new ground with
some of its interactive elements, notably the Screen Team --
six online hosts who will interview stars, trade e-mail with
Asylum visitors, and generally try to develop themselves into
compelling online personalities.
"We think we're funny," says Zakarin, summing up the
entertainer's dilemma common to all media. "But what if we're
It's three weeks before launch date, and Adam West is in the
The star of the hit '60s television sitcom "Batman" is
promoting a CD-ROM game based on the "Goosebumps" book
series. As he chats in the Asylum's television-style studio
with Screen Teamer Jim Wise, a crowd gathers in the control
room. Some want to see how well the equipment works in this
dry run of a live interview broadcast. Others are West fans
who want to see the cult TV star in action.
After admitting that he has not played the video game he is
there to promote -- sending his audience into fits of
laughter -- West starts to hesitate.
"I don't know if I can say this, but ... "
"You can say anything you want," Wise says. "This is the
Also new to cyberspace is Monica Dodi, Entertainment Asylum's
president and chief executive. The Harvard Business School
grad fell into the entertainment industry by accident and cut
her teeth at MTV Europe, Walt Disney and Warner Bros.
"I love this new media," says Dodi, who joined Asylum in
August. "This is very similar to the start of MTV. It was a
young, enthusiastic crowd. It feels the same, and that's
Dodi spends most of her time explaining the Entertainment
Asylum concept to studio executives and going over licensing
deals, advertising, content and cross-promotions. She also
calls on Fortune 500 companies such as Intel, Honda and
Coca-Cola to sell ads that will hopefully make the service
profitable in a few years.
Recently, Dodi, Zakarin and AOL Studios President Ted Leonsis
spent two days in New York making presentations to industry
analysts and media. After watching a promotional video and a
guided tour of the site, analysts fired off a barrage of
questions: How big will Entertainment Asylum get? How long
will it take? How does this fit AOL's strategy for growth?
"AOL has now become a diversified media company," Leonsis
says. "This allows us to create new brands and take advantage
of 100 percent of the Web instead of just the market share
that AOL has."
Working for a huge parent company -- one based near
Washington, no less -- releases the Asylum team from concerns
such as finding distribution and meeting payroll, though it
also means no one is likely to become a millionaire if the
Zakarin rides the details as the launch date approaches.
Before approving the design for the new navigation bar, he
asks that the search button be enlarged. He makes suggestions
about the Screen Team's wardrobe. He even contemplates
modifying the invitations for Entertainment Asylum's launch
party before sending them to the printer.
But without question, the paramount concern is enhancing the
interactive nature of the site. During a production meeting,
for example, an agenda item on e-mail addresses for Screen
Team members balloons into a discussion about how the online
hosts will respond to all of their expected e-mail.
Then they debate the logistics of coordinating mailing lists
for each of the Screen Teamers and the various content areas
within the site, such as comedy and science fiction.
The whole point of the Screen Team is to cement the link
between the site and its fans. Screen Team members must take
AOL's community training class to learn how to host an
online chat, and they must understand the difference between
television and the Web. After one month at the Asylum, a
Screen Teamer is let go when it becomes clear that "she
doesn't really understand what we're doing," Zakarin says.
She was replaced with Julie Brown, the onetime MTV veejay who
hosts a gossip show on E!
Even before Entertainment Asylum is launched, Zakarin is
hatching plans to bring his act to television. Brandon
Tartikoff, who served as chairman of the Asylum's small board
of directors, had been developing a show called "Beggars and
Choosers" that was designed for both TV and the Internet.
But that project has been in limbo since Tartikoff died of
cancer in August.
Instead, Zakarin envisions an alternative to shows such
as "Entertainment Tonight'' and "Extra." "It's my secret
ambition," he says.
Wildly optimistic, Leonsis says he expects Entertainment
Asylum to hit the 1-million-page-views-per-day mark within
100 days. Even with that level of traffic, though,
profitability would be two full years away. And few Web sites
of any kind have been able to generate that much business.
With half a dozen themed Greenhouse channels scheduled to
follow in Entertainment Asylum's footsteps, AOL will be
watching the numbers closely. And with a whole new branch of
the entertainment industry poised to emerge, Hollywood will
be watching closely too.
(c) 1997, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Los Angeles Times