Technology

Trying to Hit a Homer with Paid Web Content


By Timothy J. Mullaney Your date with Cindy Crawford. My $5 Rolex. The free Internet. They're all things that are too good to be true, according to what Wall Street and various industry smart guys tell us.

The Street is looking over the wreckage of the market for consumer Internet-content plays, such as TheStreet.com and iVillage at the low end, and stronger, yet challenged companies like Yahoo! at the high end. And it's reacting pretty much the way your friends' parents did when they returned from vacation and saw what your high school parties had done to their home. Someone, they say, is going to pay for this mess.

What the Street means is that someone will have to pay for at least some of the content on the Web. The rush is on to create information-based services that people will actually pay for, even online, in order to give companies a chance at long-term business models that will survive today's turmoil. This month in Clicks & Misses Online, we'll look at several high-profile sites that are trying to figure out exactly what information people will pay to see.

From Web magazines like Salon.com, which plans to unveil a paid Salon Premium subscription service later this month, to portals such as Yahoo -- the most popular site on the Web -- which is planning to work paid information-based services into its mostly free mix, we'll look at what people are attempting. We'll try to assess their chances of success.

TWO QUESTIONS. Our criteria are straightforward: Does a paid service answer questions people actually have or perform a task they actually need done? And second, is the paid service unusual enough that you won't find it for free one click away? Unless the answer to both questions is yes, the paid Web will soon be in the same condition as the free version.

During the first week of baseball season, MLB.com, the official site of Major League Baseball (MLB), is drawing tons of fans as it tries to get people to pay $9.95 for season-long access to radio broadcasts of ball games. Some fans don't like the idea of being charged for access to these Webcasts, which have long been free if one simply tapped into the on-air feeds routinely offered by radio-station sites. Some stations have been similarly taken aback, claiming they've paid for the right to Webcast games and saying they'll resist MLB's efforts to make them drop the feeds from their sites so the games can be exclusively available on MLB.com.

And, in fact, in a cursory look, I was able to find a Cubs game on WGN720.com from Chicago. Finding the Orioles-Red Sox match for free was no problem either. I just went to WBAL.com, the site for the Baltimore's Orioles' flagship station. Not only are the feeds still there but they're exactly the same ones I found at MLB.com. The station manager at WBAL has vowed to keep free Webcasts on WBAL.com, while MLB claims it has the right to make stations stop Webcasting games even if they've paid for local broadcast rights.

GEEK'S DREAM? It's enough to remind you of the former life of MLB.com: It used to be the Web site for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a big Philadelphia law firm that represents Major League Baseball. Until the lawyers figure things out, though, for now there's no real need to pay to hear games.

MLB, however, isn't just relying on legal force to make the games unavailable elsewhere: It's also trying to make its offering more attractive. MLB's partner, RealNetworks, promises to soup up the game Webcasts with interactive statistical breakdowns. Sounds like a geek's dream. But the feature wasn't there yet when I looked. All I got was a blank window and the sound of the WGN broadcast. So this enhancement is, at best, a work in progress.

One nice wrinkle that does work: the side-by-side links to broadcasts from the home stations of teams playing each other. For example, you can easily get either the WBAL feed or the WABC feed from New York when the Orioles play the Yankees. (But until the O's are more competitive, would you want to?). And Webcasts in languages other than English are also available. The twist is novel for a simple reason: A Yankee fan may not know what Baltimore-based site would be carrying the game. The side-by-side links invite fans to try out a change of pace from the hometown commentators they already know. It's worth doing.

CLEVELAND BEACHES. That said, however, until and unless MLB quashes free game Webcasts altogether, it's a good thing MLB.com's paid service is cheap. There's no differentiation yet between the free Webcasts I can easily find on sites like WGN720.com and WBAL.com and the paid version on MLB. The little extras that are coming to MLB -- archives of old games and the in-game stats -- seem like features few will crave all that much.

Not many people will spend much time listening to a week-old radio call of a midseason game between Tampa Bay's Devil Rays and the Cleveland Indians. Even Cleveland's beaches, let alone Tampa's, have to be more worth your time than that. And there's a basic problem with the stat windows MLB hypes: People tend to listen to online radio in the background, with something else on their screens to block out any visual display. If we had time to take in the game with our eyes as well as our ears, we'd probably be watching it on TV.

The call on MLB's pay service? Strike One. It's not out yet. But it's not ahead in the count, either. Mullaney writes the Clicks & Misses column for BusinessWeek e.biz


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