Prodigy Gets Personal With Ads, Dating Show Deal

September 17, 1991|By Leslie Cauley

Cupid, move over. Here comes Prodigy.

For $25 you can place a personal ad on Prodigy to cull romantic possibilities from among Prodigy's more than 1 million subscribers. The service, launched last week, is an expansion of USA Today's electronic classified ads, which are carried exclusively on Prodigy. The $25 fee buys a one-page ad for one week.

Prodigy's push into the matchmaking business isn't stopping there: The company is working on a deal with one of the television dating shows that will allow members to sign up as contestants through Prodigy. The agreement between Prodigy and the dating show, whose name has not been released, is expected to be announced this week.

All this might strike some observers as a curious line of business for Prodigy, the joint venture of Sears, Roebuck and Co. and IBM that has marketed and sold itself as a squeaky-clean family service.

But they would be wrong, said Debra Ann Borchert, a Prodigy program manager.

"Prodigy wants to have many revenue streams. So adding personal ads to the classified ads seemed a natural for us," Ms. Borchert said.

It's also a good business move, said Gary Arlen, editor of the Interactivity Report, a trade publication that tracks the on-line market.

"They're finally getting real," said Mr. Arlen, who has criticized some of Prodigy's marketing maneuvers, including a decision last year by Prodigy to close a health bulletin board. Prodigy said that the service was shut down because it wasn't used enough, but others contended that it was discontinued because some gay subscribers were engaging in electronic conversations not fitting a family service.

Prodigy has also been accused of peeking in on private electronic mail and editing electronic messages posted by members on bulletin boards. Prodigy acknowledges it edits messages for suitability before posting them on public bulletin boards but denies it has ever peered at private mail.

The jury is still out on how successful the Prodigy personals service will be. In the first week of the service there were 52 personal ads posted in the new classified section. In addition to ads from people in search of Mr. or Ms. Right, the new section accepts ads announcing birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and other personal events.

"The ideal part of this is that there's a kernel of interest -- everybody who uses the service has a computer," said Ms. Borchert. "So you know you share at least one interest."

Ms. Borchert, who is single, said that she tried out the service this week -- with good results. After she responded to an ad placed by a subscriber in Oregon, where her family lives, Ms. Borchert said the two made plans to meet for coffee when she goes home for Thanksgiving.

"I'm going to meet my Prince Charming yet," she said.

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