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SUDDENLY PSEUDO

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Asnes acknowledges that Pseudo's programming is still rather like the tree falling in the forest: provocative but largely hypothetical. Unless you have high-speed Internet access at home, or your office's corporate connection can download the requisite software (many company firewalls block it), you might as well forget it. Even if you have access, all the action takes place in a slightly grainy four-inch-square box in the middle of your computer screen. Still, each month, 400,000 users download one or another of Pseudo's 50-odd shows, which together add up to about 240 hours of original programming a month.

The site includes about a dozen thematic "channels," each with its own shows. The most popular are 88HipHop, a video-gaming channel called All Games Network, and an electronic-music channel called Streetsounds. Among other favorites: And Justice for Brawl covers professional wrestling; SpaceWatch targets nasa buffs; Cherrybomb dishes sex and erotica from "the female perspective"; Parse TV caters to hackers; and ChannelP broadcasts spoken-word poetry and performance art. ChannelP's stars include Taylor Mead, a former Warhol diva, and Luvvy, a cross-dressing performance-art alter ego created by none other than Josh Harris.

Pseudo's plan, Asnes says, is to build a brand that can essentially target the whole world, with a network of "microchannels" that share certain distinctive "sensibilities." Almost all of the programming involves interaction with the audience -- usually via a simultaneous online chat room, to which on-air characters sometimes respond. All of its shows are based in reality, targeted to people obsessed with a narrow subject, and presented in a way that seems authentic to hard-core fanatics, whether they are urban gangsta-rap fans or midwestern pro-football devotees.

Targeting die-hard members of preexisting subcultures has several advantages, Asnes says. For one thing, Pseudo avoids competing with conventional TV and the rest of the mass media. Fanatics are also willing to accept lower production values in programming targeted especially to them. Adding a new Internet "channel" is virtually free, and operating lots of channels allows all of them to share the same studio space and technology. Advertisers will pay a premium because they connect with a narrowly targeted audience passionate about the programming. Omega Watch Company, "the space watch," sponsors a whole channel for the space-obsessed that covers nasa and otherworldly exploration in excruciating detail. Levi's once sponsored a semester-long show that tracked four college kids around the country as they tried to live exclusively on e-commerce.

Convinced that affordable high-speed, or broadband, home-Internet access is just around the corner, Wall Street is betting that the world is finally ready for interactive Net TV. "Broadband is definitely being embraced very firmly in the market right now," says Frank Drazka, head of the technology group at PaineWebber. "The potential for a company like Pseudo is to start from a Website and replicate the success of ABC, NBC, or CBS -- a long shot, but an enormous payoff."

"Josh is one of the brightest guys in Silicon Alley. He may seem like a lunatic sometimes, but there are a lot bigger lunatics that have raised a lot more capital."

That opportunity has not gone unnoticed by Pseudo's investors, who include the chip-maker Intel, the media giant Tribune Company, and the venture-capital firm Prospect Street Ventures. To them, Wall Street's interest says that the time has come to polish up Pseudo so it can get its own IPO out the door.

Already, plenty of newer ventures are entering the field. DreamWorks SKG and Imagine Entertainment just announced the formation of their own online Netcasting venture, Pop.com, and Warner Bros. recently launched its interactive site, Entertaindom. WireBreak Entertainment, a Venice, California, start-up, is aiming its site at 18-to-34-year-old men slacking off at their dorm or office computers. It broadcasts "irreverent" two-to-ten-minute video programs styled after the T&A magazine Maxim, often with simultaneous interactive games to play or running polls to answer. Its backers include former CBS chief executive Michael Jordan, legendary financier Richard Rainwater, and Goldman Sachs. Pseudo's closest competitor is den (Digital Entertainment Network), a Santa Monica outfit backed by Microsoft and Dell that caters to teenage cliques like skateboarders and Christian rockers. den has already made preliminary filings for its IPO.

But Pseudo, the oldest of the bunch, has maintained its reputation as a leader in the field. "Josh is one of the smartest people that we've come across in the Netcasting space," says Dan Sullivan of Pop.com. "His instincts are very well suited for it. He has a good eye for talent, and he has empowered all kinds of different artists to create new kinds of programming -- the first generation of Internet-bred actors and directors."

Jerry Colonna, co-founder of the venture-capital fund Flatiron Partners, declined to invest in Pseudo early on, concerned about the size of Harris's initial appetite for funding. But he still takes Harris seriously. "Josh is one of the brightest guys in Silicon Alley. He may seem like a lunatic sometimes, but there are a lot bigger lunatics that have raised a lot more capital."

The day after the Sotheby's caper, Harris stands watching the debut of a new online talk show featuring football players from a group called the NFL Quarterback Club. Bernie Kosar, Warren Moon, and NBC sportscaster Len Berman sit in a row, Donahue-style. A young man in a football jersey reads questions from an online chat room, and the answers are broadcast live over the Web. A chatter wants to know what it's like to "slide your hand into that spot" between the legs of "a big sweaty center. Do you think about that? Are some guys more comfortable than others? Is it like a glove?"


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