Hollywood Pros Seek to Put Music, Movies and More on PC

By Andrew Pollack
The New York Times, Santa Monica, Calif., February 9, 1998
Jonathan Taplin's career has taken him from Woodstock to Wall Street and Hollywood. He has been tour manager for Bob Dylan and the Band, an investment banker at Merrill Lynch and a producer of movies like "Mean Streets."

Now, he is hoping to go where no one else has yet successfully gone. Together with two other Hollywood veterans, he has formed Intertainer Inc., which aims to provide movies on demand, music, electronic shopping and other services delivered to personal computers over high-speed telephone lines or cable television systems.

The two-year-old company has attracted modest investments from Intel Corp. and from Comcast Corp., the cable television company in which Microsoft Corp. invested $1 billion.

Taplin said Intertainer, whose service will be demonstrated publicly for the first time later this week at the Networked Entertainment World exposition in Beverly Hills, Calif., is close to securing investments from other companies he would not identify, though Sony Corp. executives say they have at least talked to Intertainer about an investment.

Based in this city next to Los Angeles, Intertainer is one of the early group of companies aiming to provide entertainment through "broadband" circuits, so called because of their large carrying capacity.

Cable companies say they are planning to install cable modems to give customers high-speed access to the Internet and other services. And regional telephone companies have agreed with Intel, Microsoft and Compaq Computer Corp. to speed deployment of so-called digital subscriber lines, access to data and video at speeds more than 25 times that of the fastest existing modems.

Intertainer has licensed, at least on a trial basis, movies and other programs from Sony Pictures, Warner Brothers, PBS and Home and Garden Television, among others.

"They are the beginning of what I call the aggregators, that are aggregating content and putting it out there," said Stephen McKenna, director of sales to entertainment and media companies at Sun Microsystems Inc., whose equipment and software is used by Intertainer. "There are other people who are trying to do it, but they've done it in an elegant way."

It has been the Holy Grail of electronic entertainment to offer consumers a wide range of programming on demand in an easily accessible and affordable fashion. But it is not yet clear that consumers really want this and far bigger players than Intertainer have floundered, including Time Warner Inc. with its 500-channel cable service in Orlando, Fla., and Tele-TV, a venture formed by three of the regional Bell telephone companies, Nynex, Bell Atlantic and Pacific Telesis.

"They're just going to step right into where the first rank got machine-gunned," said Marty Perlmutter, an executive recruiter and consultant on broadband services, who is not familiar with Intertainer.

Taplin, a co-chairman of Intertainer along with his co-founder Richard Baskin, said the company has a shot because technology is better and "we approached it from an entertainment perspective, not necessarily a technical one."

The system does seem easy to use. Viewers see two concentric circles with menu choices. The outer ring offers different types of programming like movies, music or games. Choose one, music, for example, and the inner circle offers different genres, like rock and Top 40. On the way to that choice, an ad aimed at the particular viewer, is shown.

After listening to a selection or seeing a music video, users will be able to place an order for it online and, providing record companies give permission to Intertainer, to download a CD in eight minutes. The system also has an intelligent agent that gradually learns the viewer's tastes and suggests programs.

So far Intertainer has had only a small technical trial, with commercial service expected to begin in the third quarter of this year on one of Comcast's cable systems, Taplin said. While users will have to pay for cable modem service or digital subscriber lines, Intertainer's basic service will be free.

Intertainer's service eventually would be available for TV sets as well as PCs through set-top cable boxes. Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's largest cable company, has said that Sun Microsystem's Java software would be incorporated into its future set-top boxes.

Intertainer is likely to need far more than the roughly $10 million it has raised, and several other companies are providing broadband services that could compete with Intertainer.

Time Warner Cable and US West Media Group, part of the regional telephone company, said in December that they would merge their respective broadband services, Road Runner and Media One Express. Americast, a venture of Walt Disney Co. and four regional telephone companies, has experienced cutbacks but is rolling out service. Another potential competitor is the Diva Systems Corp., a Silicon Valley start-up.

At Home Networks is providing information over cable modems, though with limited video. And America Online, the leading consumer online service for data and text, is moving toward providing more video and entertainment.

Then there are a host of World Wide Web services offering entertainment or music that can be downloaded. Intertainer's service will not be Web-based because of worries about Internet video quality.

"It seemed like 1948 television to us," Baskin said. "Tiny little jerky pictures and bad sound." But the same high-speed transmission needed for Intertainer's service will enable much faster access to the Internet, which could offer a more diverse range of services than Intertainer.

Intertainer's roots can be seen in the company's cluttered headquarters, where the walls are covered with gold record albums and posters from movies that the founders have been involved in. Taplin, 50, began working as a "roadie" for Janis Joplin while attending Princeton University.

Upon graduation he moved to Woodstock, N.Y., to be the tour manager for Bob Dylan and the Band and produced George Harrison's concert for Bangladesh. He also helped set up the deal in which the Bass Brothers bought a controlling stake in Disney.

Baskin, 49, composed scores for many movies starting with "Nashville." He is also a longtime supporter of President Clinton.

The third founder, Jeremiah Chechik, is a director whose movies have included "National Lampoon's Vacation." He is an Intertainer director but is not involved in day-to-day management.