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Growing pains

Streaming sites seek specific game plans

It’s funny how other people’s failures can quickly bring things into focus.

What was once a blind race to the Web for entertainment e-trepreneurs has quickly slowed down to questions of self-identity.

Netcaster iFilm is now a portal for every film on every Web site. Load Media Networks, which was trying to get Netizens loaded with its Webcasting technology, is now a post-production house for Internet content creators.

In a space in which brand identity can make or break a business, dot-coms are realizing they must quickly make it clear to Netizens what they are and what services, if any, they offer.

Earlier this month, NBCi, the ‘Net wing of the Peacock, announced that it plans to phase out its various dot-com brands — Snap, VideoSeeker and Xoom — and fold the services into soon-to-be-revamped flagship portal NBCi.com.

While critics called the move a sign that the company was caving in on itself — even describing the venture as a train wreck — NBCi clearly signaled that it realized it had too many brands in the fire. Refocusing as a single destination site, NBCi should see ad revenues rise as Netizens no longer grapple with the choice of which NBC property to visit online. “We are doing the post-merger integration to create a portal that offers industry-leading relevancy, personalization and data mining, adding value to the interaction between our members and our marketing partners,” says NBCi CEO William J. Lansing.

Similarly, in a major shift in its own business plan, iFilm transformed itself into a portal for everything Internet film-related after its first model — that of Netcaster for indie pics — failed to catch on with customers or advertisers.

Spinoff iFilmpro.com is concentrating on serving as a business-to-business venture for the film industry, using recently acquired tools like the Hollywood Creative Directory, ScriptShark.com and Lone Eagle Publishing to compete with offerings from Creative Planet and the soon-to-bow WebEI.

“Every week there are dozens of sites adding hundreds of new films on the Web, yet until now there was no single place to find all the best films from all the best sites,” says iFilm co-founder and CEO Kevin Wendle. “There hasn’t been a portal for film.”

Load Media Networks was originally split into three companies — LoadTV, a Netcasting technology similar to RealNetworks; original production wing Morgan Digital Studios; and LoadTeVe, the company’s international arm.

But starting with the sudden departure of founder and topper Morgan Warstler in May, Load began a major restructuring. Now that the dust has settled, Load has turned primarily into a post-production operation for Internet content creators, competing with Loudeye and Intel.

Morgan Digital Studios is now called Tribe Studio and handles the post work. All in-house productions have been dropped.

“There’s a growth cycle for any startup,” newly-appointed Load CEO Jack Kennedy says. “We looked at what was happening and picked up what things were really good and left what things were less effective. The past management team got as many bodies as it could and threw them at the problem entrepreneurially and hoped they came back with solutions. But 20% of the people returned 80% of what was wanted.”

Seattle-based Loudeye Technologies has stuck to being an Internet post house ever since opening its doors as Encoding.com, and the move has paid off.

Basically, Loudeye translates music and film archives into Internet formats, encoding a movie or recording into any one of 15 formats. Company has inked deals with technology companies Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle Corp, as well as media and entertainment companies such as AtomFilms, BMG Entertainment, Disney, EMusic.com, EMI-Capitol Music Group, Energy Films, Sony, Warner Bros. Online and Universal New Media.

Digital Entertainment Network never had the chance to refocus its strategy from serving as a Netcaster for Gen-Y audiences, producer of “cool” content for young Netizens, music publisher and lifestyle destination.

While its problems stemmed largely from overspending on lavish salaries and content, it was also trying to do too much. The company tried to relaunch solely as a Netcaster of animated and video-based content, nothing else, but investors didn’t buy the plan and pulled the funding.

“I like to think that our venture capitalists were wrong about DEN’s possibilities, but maybe they were right, or at any rate right for them and right for their goals and objectives as an investment operation,” DEN prexy David Neuman recently said at the Streaming Media East confab in New York. “Who knows?”

Staffers at DreamWorks and Imagine’s Pop.com are reportedly trying to figure out their model before launching. The sudden shifts at other dot-coms are said to have delayed the company’s bow further. After announcing its startup last November, the site still hasn’t revealed itself or its comedy-themed programming to Netizens.

Although the company’s been relatively quiet about its operations, Jamie Tosi, Pop’s head of content development and production for Flash animation, told an audience at this month’s Big Internet Animation Pow Wow in Los Angeles that the Netcaster tried, unsuccessfully, to repurpose unaired or unfilmed projects from DreamWorks and Imagine to its site. While Tosi and Pope did not reveal which projects were marked for repurposing, one was an animated series rejected by NBC. Other staffers at the company say Pop.com is likely to focus more of its attention on original productions acquired by outside producers, to ease what has become a headache for the site to create its own show inhouse.

“We have no idea what we’re doing,” says one staffer. “Creating a Web site is one thing. Creating content is terrible.”

DEN may not have realized its problems until it was too late, but other dot-coms are quickly trying to learn the lessons left behind:

  • You’re either an Internet content creator or Netcaster. It’s tough to succeed as both. It’s too costly to try to attract Netizens and have to worry about creating programming at the same time.

  • Ink deals with successful content creators already working in TV or film. Netizens are more likely to watch programming featuring talent or brands they recognize. The two Webcasts of the Victoria’s Secret fashion shows were major hits for a reason. Anyone will tune in to watch Julia Roberts, should she appear in an online Web series or short film. No-name projects have a tougher time attracting auds.

  • If you’re a Netcaster, promote your programming. The content creators won’t.

“Every bit of attention that we ever paid to the quality of our product paid great dividends for us,” Neuman says. “Conversely, any inattention to product quality never failed to come back to haunt us.

“If DEN is ever studied in business school case studies — and for selfish reasons, I hope it is not — the fact that no significant marketing of the product ever took place will be a source of great fascination and disbelief. Of course, it was planned, and would have happened, but it’s omission of execution from the beginning is a great missed opportunity.”

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