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'WE HAVE TO BE PRIME TIME'

Ted Leonsis loves a good fright. In November, 1994, the America OnLine Inc. executive opened a company rally with heart-stopping clips from Jurassic Park. As the T-rex clawed through an electrified fence, Leonsis warned AOLers to fortify their defenses against the beast from the Northwest, Microsoft Corp. ``You need an enemy,'' says Leonsis.

Now that Microsoft and AOL have a partial truce, who's the new bête noire? ``Jerry Seinfeld,'' Leonsis replies without hesitation. It makes sense. As president of the division responsible for content, Leonsis has launched a flurry of deals to make AOL a media powerhouse. Still, on a good Thursday night, AOL grabs an audience of maybe 400,000. Seinfeld gets 20 million. ``We are pathetic compared to that,'' Leonsis says. ``But we have to get there. We have to be prime time.''

Turning suburban Virginia, home of AOL, into a cyber-Hollywood seems a stretch. But Leonsis has made a career of such leaps. A 1977 graduate of Georgetown University, he started his high-tech career in advertising and public relations at Wang Laboratories Inc. In 1986, he co-founded Redgate Communications Corp., an advertising and public-relations company that also produced shopping guides on CD-ROM. America Online bought Redgate for $34 million in 1994 to get the company's catalogs and online commerce expertise. Leonsis came in the bargain.

The 39-year-old executive, in sharp contrast to low-key AOL chief Steve Case, is a flamboyant new-media impresario. Through Greenhouse, a program started last year, Leonsis pumps AOL funds into content startups--more than $10 million into 30 enterprises, so far. ``We are going to find our Spielbergs this way,'' he says.

Leonsis screens most applicants himself, including three 25-year-old Alabama buddies who arrived with an idea for a comedy program 13 months ago. ``We had seen this as something we'd do in our spare time,'' recalls Sean Michael, a member of the trio. ``But Ted said, `You guys need to be thinking big.'''

They did, and Hecklers Online became a Greenhouse hit--one of six that are each attracting AOL surfers at the rate of 1 million hours annually. Another hit is The Motley Fool, an investment advisory that has spawned a best-selling book and a magazine column. Others, such as Net Noir, an area for African Americans, and SurfLink (for the aquatic kind), ``haven't found their audience yet,'' Leonsis concedes.

DATELINE GOMORRAH. Lately, Leonsis has broadened his quest, launching a series of joint ventures with media giants, including Time Warner, Viacom, and New Line Television. The goal is to produce full-blown online channels, similar to cable-TV channels. The Hub, launched by New Line and AOL on Mar. 19, is aimed at 15- to 34-year-olds. Its offbeat offerings range from dream analysis to racy Bible excerpts. Why AOL? ``They were the only ones willing to blow up the models and not look back,'' says Robert Friedman, president of New Line Television Inc.

Leonsis loves anything that makes AOL cool, even outrageous. He just authorized an April Fools Day gag--an AOL news flash blowing the lid off government efforts to suppress reports of life on Jupiter. And once, the imposing 5-foot, 9-inch 205-pounder stunned a visitor by belly-butting another AOL executive sumo-style. ``Life is a contact sport,'' he asserts. Jerry Seinfeld, watch out.

By Amy Barrett in Vienna, Va.


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Updated June 14, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1996, Bloomberg L.P.
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