Digital Entertainment

MSN's Wonderwall: Celebrating Celebs


Not getting enough of your Britney Spears drama? Need more Paris Hilton sightings in your life? You can now get your fix from Microsoft's (MSFT) MSN online service. Hoping to take on established gossip sites like TMZ.com and PerezHilton.com, MSN is launching its own Us Weekly-like celebrity site, Wonderwall.

Wonderwall is being launched in conjunction with Hollywood heavyweight TV producers Lloyd Braun and Gail Berman, both former heads of Hollywood TV operations. Designed by Alex Blagg, a founding editor of cable channel VH1's "Best Week Ever" blog, MSN's new site looks, well, like a wall with photos, graphics, features, and more photos of celebrities. It "takes all the celebrity content on MSN and puts it in one place," says MSN General Manager Rob Bennett. On the taste meter, Wonderwall will land somewhere between the often tawdry paparazzi-stalking on TMZ and Time Warner's (TWX) far more sedate People magazine. "It will definitely have edge," says Braun. "Just not over the top."

MSN may need all the edge it can get in its battle against such Web heavyweights as Yahoo (YHOO), which has its own celebrity gossip site, OMG, and Time Warner's AOL, partial owner of TMZ. Celebrity-related news and content is one of the fastest-growing online niches. An estimated 84% of people on the Internet visit an entertainment site every month, says MSN, making the entertainment category more popular than social networks, retail, or other traditional outlets. More important, the gossip category grew at a 12% clip last year, according to comScore (SCOR) figures cited by MSN.

Where to Hear the Gossip

The most popular gossip Web site is People.com, with 9.4 million to 13.3 million monthly visitors, depending on who's counting, according to statistics compiled by eBizMBA. Rounding out the top five are TMZ.com, USMagazine.com, starpulse.com, and Eonline.com, says eBizMBA, which relies on a variety of metrics, including the number of links from other sites and monthly visitors.

In an example of content on Wonderwall, available at the outset in a "beta" test mode, the now-familiar audio clip of a foul-mouthed Christian Bale on the set of the movie Terminator Salvation is paired with a picture feature of "the 10 craziest breakout moments." The Bale tape was provided through a linkage with NBC's Mobile podcast of its Entertainment Buzz segment. Users can also expect content from other well-regarded outlets like Paramount's (VIAB) TV show Entertainment Tonight, which provided the beta site with a piece on actress Anne Hathaway at a food bank.

The idea for Wonderwall was pitched by Braun and Berman more than a year ago, Bennett says. Berman, a onetime head of the Fox Network (NWS) and former president of Paramount Pictures, has a rÉsumÉ that includes creating cutting-edge shows like the comedy Malcolm in the Middle and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Braun, a onetime chairman of Disney's (DIS) ABC Entertainment Group, helped shepherd hit shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives. After leaving Disney, he joined Yahoo in 2004 to run its Hollywood content division. There, he developed a daily video show called The 9, among others. Braun has recruited four Yahoo executives, including head designer Paco Vinoly, to BermanBraun, the production company he and Berman run.

Wonderwall starts out with a hefty roster of advertisers, says Braun, although he would disclose only Kraft-Crystal Light (KFT). The beta site also has sections sponsored by Sony's (SNE) Vaio computer. The Hollywood producers' job, says Braun, is to add sizzle to the channel—with customized features that may include original content. "But you won't want to get too far out there that advertisers don't want to be a part of the venture," he adds. Indeed.

Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek.


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