TV shows online?

Many broadcast veterans are hoping the World Wide Web will be a good place to find audiences and advertisers



The question nagged Harvey Levin all summer: Is the Internet a place where TV careers go to die -- or be reborn? After Telepictures Productions pulled the plug on Levin's syndicated newsmagazine Celebrity Justice, he was approached about starting an entertainment news Web site with America Online.

"My initial reaction was, I couldn't be less interested," Levin recalled. "I thought, I'm going to do more television. Why would I do Internet?"

But he continued to ponder the benefits of online distribution: younger viewers, faster turnaround, lower overhead, not to mention exposure to the more than 110 million people who visit AOL Web sites each month.

So after finding nothing more exciting in television, Levin agreed to join, a joint venture between Telepictures and America Online that the companies plan to launch next month.

Levin joins an increasing number of broadcasting veterans jumping to the Internet for a chance to set the course for a new generation of programming. In another recent example, Yahoo Inc. recently said it had hired TV journalist Kevin Sites to file video, audio and written dispatches from nearly three dozen war zones.

Much as radio shock jock Howard Stern plans to move his program to Sirius Satellite Radio at the end of this year, some television producers, deal makers and even on-air personalities are starting to see the Internet emerge as an inviting place to find audiences and advertisers.

"What I love about this so much is it hasn't shown its potential," Levin said. "It's more exciting to me to be at a place where I can at least attempt to break some ground than to basically follow a set path."

The Web's role as a broadcast medium where TV veterans can put their skills to use is still in its early days of development. Hollywood talent agencies have deal makers assigned specifically to find business opportunities in the video game industry, where the annual revenue rivals box-office receipts. But there are few, if any, focused on developing programming for the Internet, where most revenue is generated by simple text or banner ads.

For writers, producers and their agents thinking about pitching an idea to Yahoo or AOL, "the kind of money they're going to get pales in comparison to what they can get writing a feature film or getting on staff of a TV show for a year," said Chris Silbermann, a partner with literary agency Broder Webb Chervin Silbermann. "There's just not enough financial incentive."

Yet as broadband connections spawn more streaming video and TV-like commercials on the Web, the business models that have made Tinseltown hum for the past century are finally starting to take shape for original Internet programming, according to Internet and entertainment executives.

"There hasn't yet been that big hit Internet show," said Daniel Laikind, a founder of Stick Figure Productions, which created reality TV shows for the HBO and UPN networks before starting a reality show on the recording industry for AOL. "Five years from now, we're all going to sit back and laugh that any of us wondered if Internet programming was going to be viable."

One longtime Hollywood publicist said celebrities had to promote themselves on the Internet these days, and having AOL's muscle behind it could only help "If I do something on AOL, I can hit 20 million people," said Howard Bragman, who represents Stevie Wonder and Ricki Lake. "I can't do that on TV anymore."

AOL and rival Yahoo are driving the change, scouring the news and entertainment industries for ideas and talent to bring original video programming to their networks. AOL and parent company Time Warner Inc. are finally starting to heal the rifts from their disastrous 2001 merger and work together on next-generation programming.

For his part, Yahoo Chief Executive Terry Semel is stocking the company with entertainment insiders: Lloyd Braun joined the Internet giant after being fired as chairman of the ABC television network and has since recruited seasoned deal makers from his old industry to figure out how to take advantage of the unique mix of broadcasting, personalization and interactivity that the Internet offers.

"The landscape is wide open," said Ira Kurgan, chief business officer of the Santa Monica-based Yahoo Media Group and a former Fox Broadcasting Co. executive.

Executives from AOL and Telepictures came up with the idea for during a brainstorming session to devise ways for the fellow Time Warner properties to work together.

Because most of the Web sites for Telepictures shows are designed simply to promote more TV viewing, the executives decided to create a new Web property. "We decided to start from the ground up in the new medium rather than try to put a square peg in a round hole," Telepictures President Jim Paratore said.

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