Excite not worried about AOL

The new CEO says his company's plans for broadband and personalisation will keep the portal compelling to consumers

If new Excite@Home CEO George Bell has any worries about the giant merger between America Online and Time Warner, he's not showing them.

Bell, speaking at the Massachusetts Software and Internet Council today, acknowledged that the deal "in one moment" gave AOL a significant entry into the cable-access market. But the future of this business, he said, is in content.

"The first stages of any media, distribution is king. ESPN was a good idea, but it wasn't going to go anywhere without distribution," he said. "But in mature stages of any media, the loyalty is to content. You don't watch Monday Night Football because it's on ABC, you watch ABC to watch football."

But the content Bell is talking about isn't the programming and print content that AOL acquired along with Time Warner. That sort of content, he said, will continue to be broadly distributed the way it is now.

Bell said he got calls from three different divisions of Time Warner on the day of the merger, all seeking to confirm previously agreed on distribution deals.

"My supposition is that content won't live on rules set by their parent companies. If you're CNN, you want to be distributed as widely as possible (on cable systems). If you're Time Magazine, you want to be everywhere (online)," he said.

Instead, what he thinks will draw in loyal subscribers are features and services he can offer through a broadband connection.

Excite is planning to launch a broadband portal in March for its @Home customers, who use superfast cable modems to access the Net.

The ability to present more information to a consumer, and present it much more quickly, is changing the way the company thinks about revenue models, he said.

Instead of focusing on delivering a vast number of Web pages to users, the company is more concerned with increasing the time those users spend online. That philosophy even reaches its regular narrow-band site, where a search for the New York Yankees returns a single page with a plethora of content, instead of links to multiple different pages.

"Forms of measurement will change in the narrow-band world as well," he said. "It's a notion of time spent, not pages viewed."

And by locking users in with highly personalised sites -- something more portals are already offering -- companies can help advertisers tightly focus their marketing.

But while he thinks his company can compete with AOL on features even in the narrow-band market, he's still trying to convince consumers to take the next step.

Bell said the company has been conducting marketing trials in a few cities over the past few months, offering AOL subscribers a special deal if they sign up for the @Home service. Consumers get a rebate equal to two months worth of their AOL service plan.

Bell said the promotion had an 80 percent success rate, and that two-thirds of the consumers who signed up for the high-speed service ended up canceling their AOL accounts.

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