Josh Harris, Chairman Of Pseudo Programs, Inc., lives in a SoHo loft big enough to house a fleet of double-decker buses. A grid of steel tracks hang from the ceiling for lighting equipment and cameras; the entire space doubles as a television studio, with a control room in back. The walls are bare except for a trio of six-foot-tall paintings of a single image in red, blue, and yellow: a small figure kneeling in prayer to the crotch of a woman big enough to be the Statue of Liberty posing for Penthouse.
The 350-square-foot bathroom – also equipped for cameras – includes a sauna with two showers, a pull-cord spritzer for a quick cold rinse, and a three-tiered bench that could seat a football team. Three showerheads are directed at the top row of the bench; Josh Harris likes to shower lying down.
It’s 6 p.m. on a Monday night, and Harris isn’t home yet. But his door is always open to a revolving crew of downtown artists and performers. A man in oversize women’s sunglasses who calls himself Alex Arcadia – the crotch paintings are his – is rummaging in Harris’s stainless-steel industrial fridge. On a plastic Art Deco couch in the rear, a man in a crew cut and camouflage pants is showing off his latest prosthetic leg, which is also camouflage-colored. He’s a video artist who calls himself Feedbuck. Alfredo Martinez, a 325-pound sculptor in an olive-green jacket and a baggy T-shirt, is watching a DVD of The Matrix, projected onto the wall.
“Is everybody here?” Harris says, bursting through the door. Thirty-eight years old and slightly pudgy, he is dressed as usual in cargo pants, a sport shirt, and white tennis shoes. He has assembled his “merry band,” as he calls the group, for an excursion uptown to a panel discussion on Marcel Duchamp at Sotheby’s.
As the founder of Pseudo Programs, the oldest and largest producer of television shows for the Internet, Harris is a major player in the race to define the post-television future of broadcast entertainment – an area of intense interest on Wall Street and in Hollywood now that cable and phone companies are scrambling to install high-speed Internet connections into millions of homes. In a few days, Harris will be flying to Los Angeles to meet with “the Pop guys,” meaning the top executives of Pop.com, a new online entertainment venture whose founders include Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Ron Howard.
But tonight, venture capital, strategic partnerships, and initial public offerings aren’t on his agenda. “These are my people,” Harris says, gesturing to the motley crowd. “My thing is fine art.”
“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.”
They gather up video cameras and spill out onto the street, where two cabs are hailed. “I’ve been a big-game hunter for years,” Harris explains. His sport is videotaping art-world events in the hopes of capturing footage of underground artists who may someday be famous, or pranks and performances of future historical note.
For Sotheby’s, Feedbuck has loaded his camera with a tape of hard-core porn; the porn rolls on his camera’s side viewfinder while he pretends to film the panel. A co-conspirator films Feedbuck shooting the crowd, careful to keep the porn images in focus. Harris, giggling, hides his face in his hands.
When the stunt wears thin, Harris films his pals clowning around with the art in an adjacent gallery. A crowd of security guards discreetly follows; cameras are forbidden, but a fuss would disturb the panel. Paul Miller, better known as D.J. Spooky, joins the group, rattling on about Michel Foucault and “the fucked-up shit” Jean-Michel Basquiat “must have been under.” Martinez poses, head cocked, against the backdrop of a polka-dotted Damien Hirst.
After the panel ends, the crew heads to Obeca Li, an elegant Japanese restaurant in TriBeCa. Feedbuck immediately orders the table several plates of salmon-roll sushi topped with quail eggs; soon he is sucking down salmon sashimi with his fingers. Somebody lights a joint, but the waiter doesn’t seem to mind. Harris abstains. “Let’s face it,” he says. “That panel at Sotheby’s was a big fart. We were the only ones doing anything interesting. We were running the gallery.” Dinner and sake for seven: $800.
Pseudo’s offices and studios occupy four floors of loft space above Pottery Barn at the corner of Broadway and Houston. The only other tenant, on the second floor, is the artist Jeff Koons. The entrance is a dingy and unreliable freight elevator, usually crowded with kids wearing T-shirts, baggy jeans, nose rings, and candy-colored pagers. The place is a chaotic maze of desks, PCs, lumber, folding chairs, and digital-video equipment. The average age of Pseudo’s 200-odd staff appears to be about 27.
A crowd of Pseudo employees has gathered in the black-box studio on Pseudo’s sixth floor for the debut of a new show, and Anthony Asnes, Pseudo’s chief operating officer, president, and acting chief executive, stands to the side, observing. A tall, slender 37-year-old with a receding hairline, he worked as a management consultant to industrial companies before Harris hired him four years ago. His job is to bring order to Pseudo’s freewheeling day-to-day operations – a task for which Harris is ill-equipped.
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?”
“Yes, we think about it, and yes, it is not pleasant,” Kosar replies. “It is especially unpleasant,” Moon solemnly adds, “if that center might be experiencing a little gas.”
After the show, Harris buttonholes Kosar. “You guys are great performers,” he says. “You really ran with the ‘hands’ question. I have a great idea for a new show – the Polaroid show. We’ll get quarterbacks to talk about the pictures that the teams take of the field during the game. Polaroid will sponsor it. As a football fan, I’d go nuts for that.”
Afterward, he retires to his office, a narrow stall decorated with pictures of Alfred E. Neuman. One wall is devoted to a two-foot-high terrarium that houses Maurice Jr., an Australian bearded dragon, and Myrtle, a tortoise. Still recovering from a long night with the “fine-art crowd,” Harris muses about his sudden mogul status. “For the last six weeks, I feel like I have the hottest script in Hollywood,” he tells me, happily dropping the names of executives he has met with, from Italian media mogul Silvio Berlusconi to CBS’s Mel Karmazin. “They need me. They all need me. They know they want to do something on the Net, but they don’t know how.”
But Harris says he doesn’t want to be the William Paley of Net TV. “My merry band and I are attempting to become the first Internet pop stars,” he says. “At Pseudo, I am just building my platform.” He insists he is really a performer, not a businessman. He has gone native, so to speak – started out a successful businessman and ended up a wannabe star. “The idea is to get the machine running well enough so that Pseudo will benefit from my success. I am the product, get it? I don’t want to be Procter & Gamble. I want to be Tide.”
He wants, above all, to be accepted by his downtown neighbors, and by art-world luminaries like Mary Boone and Jeffrey Deitch. “For me,” he says, “the end game is fine art. That is what I am driving toward, to be accepted into the sanctum sanctorum of fine art.”
Josh Harris was born in Ventura, California, the youngest of seven children. His father, he says, worked somewhat mysteriously in international trade – traveling often, carrying a gun, holding two passports. He died during heart surgery when Harris was 15. His mother was busy, too, doing social work with juvenile criminals. “I didn’t have much management growing up,” He admits.
When he was in college at the University of California at San Diego, his friends nicknamed him Mr. Communications, and talked about his dedication to C&D, “concealment and deception,” because he always seemed to be nurturing secret plans. In 1984, Harris dropped out of graduate school, sold his ‘73 Volvo for $900, and flew to New York. He found a $75-a-month room on First Avenue and 59th Street and managed to land a job as an analyst covering video-tex – a precursor to the Web – at a now-defunct market-research firm called Link Resources.
At Link, Harris spent his days calling up companies’ suppliers to find out what they were buying and compiling statistics about their businesses. After two years of long hours and low pay – “It was a white-collar sweat shop,” Harris says – he quit and began working out of his tiny apartment, doing business as Jupiter Communications.
He was a one-man research-and-consulting firm focused on the fledgling Internet. But he quickly expanded into mounting industry conferences – a big moneymaker. Most important, he carefully cultivated an enormous mailing list of industry contacts, which he used to aggressively cross-promote research, newsletters, consulting, and conferences. By 1992, Jupiter and Harris seemed to be everywhere. “I was in the Journal and the Times enough that the people who know this business knew I was on top,” Harris says. “I could have really run it out and ensconced myself, but that isn’t what I wanted.”
He began handing over Jupiter’s reins to Gene DeRose, a former freelance writer Harris hired through a help-wanted ad in the New York Press. Under DeRose, Jupiter’s payroll expanded from 12 to 260. Its IPO in October gave it an initial market value of $550 million, putting Harris’s share at over $20 million.
After 1992, however, he was already “moving on to the next thing.” Harris spent a year and a half working with a team of programmers on a short animated video that he says remains his long-term vision of interactive entertainment. Entitled “Launder My Head,” it depicts a group of animated figures with PCs for heads. They sit together in a giant stadium and discuss the hidden meanings in an episode of Gilligan’s Island – a curious manifesto for the digital future, to say the least.
But Harris insists it encapsulates the essence of Pseudo. The name Pseudo reflects “the many different faces you can have in the online world.” Pseudo Programs is about inviting users to create new identities that will interact online, in a prefab context. “We called it ‘Programs’ because we are conscious that we are in the business of programming people’s lives. We are the good side of Big Brother. We know that it is going to happen, and instead of saying it is scary, we embrace it.”
In 1994, on the strength of “Launder My Head,” Harris managed to convince Prodigy, the Internet service, to give him a contract to manage their chat rooms – and so Pseudo was born. He rented a 10,000-square-foot loft across Houston Street from Jupiter, and he and his first lizard, Maurice Sr., moved into the back room. “We weren’t funded yet, so I saved a little money, and I made a deliberate decision to live my life in public,” he says. “Someday we are all going to.”
His team of programmers set to work with Prodigy’s on a secret project. Called the Betty Platform, after the girlfriend of Prodigy’s then-chief executive, Ed Bennett, it was intended to create a three-dimensional audio-visual online environment where users could interact, but the company changed hands, Pseudo’s contract was cut off, and the Betty Platform never came to pass.
By the time the Prodigy deal ended, Harris was fooling around with Web-radio broadcasts, mostly centering on poetry, performance art, and an open mike. He was living on nicotine and coffee. “That period was so intense, I can’t think about it now,” he says. An ardent player of video games like Doom and Quake, Harris wired together a whole roomful of PCs so that several players at once could interact in the virtual world of the game, sometimes for twenty-hour marathon sessions. “You get a real hangover, and it takes two days to recover,” he says. “That’s when I realized I was never going to be a professional gamer.” The Pseudo radio show would sometimes send a reporter to cover the games, like a correspondent from the front.
Harris soon began adding D.J.’s and electronic music to the mix, and the events evolved into monthly or bi-monthly all-night raves – incorporating virtual-reality games, music, poetry, and performance, drawing crowds of more than 2,000. Drugs were not uncommon, and at least two of Pseudo’s early employees left the company to enter rehab. But the entertainment was sometimes memorable. At a fund-raiser for Merce Cunningham’s dance company, the choreographer produced a small virtual-reality dance movement by manipulating a two-foot tall mechanical monkey attached to a computer, which projected a dancing human form onto a screen. On another occasion, Harris created a Pseudo Madonna museum, plastering the walls with giant photos of the singer, and he took out an ad in The Village Voice inviting performers and artists to contribute Madonna parodies, interpretations, and tributes.
“The idea is to get the machine running well enough so that Pseudo will benefit from my success. I am the product – get it?”
These days, Harris stages his parties down the street, on three floors of two lower Broadway textile factories he has taken over. In September, he held a three-day megaparty dubbed the “Millennium Warm-up.” Guests were videotaped answering a brief list of questions including “Who is Bill Gates?” and “What is your e-mail address?” Pseudo is collecting such footage at every event it can, with a plan to e-mail each person a short video clip of himself – the most narrowly targeted broadcast of all time.
All three nights, the party lasted until dawn, and by the third night, the line went around the block. On the first floor, a parade of performance artists took the stage, including a bikini-clad dancer with a fake dagger and blood, a fire-eater, a bondage-and-domination act, and the “mangina,” whose act revolves around a fake plastic vagina he wears strapped to his crotch. Videos were projected across the walls. D.J. Spooky, D.J. Shadow, and others took turns spinning. And in the VIP room, black-clad female “vampires” served sweet drinks with names like Opium.
Right from the start, Harris was performing on-air at Pseudo, including co-hosting an early show in which he interviewed characters in the East Village sex scene. “I would ask, ‘What percentage of fetishers are foot fetishers? And how many times a week are they fetishing? How does the backroom operation in a whorehouse work?’ ” It was great because I was actually fascinated with the answers.”
Harris dressed up for shows by putting on makeup, a feather boa, and a wig. He affected a high falsetto voice, and introduced himself as “Luvvy.” Sometimes, the makeup was so heavy he looked like a clown, but he constantly insisted, “Luvvy’s not a clown, not a clown,” occasionally with the tag line “You gotta love the love.” Some of Luvvy’s appearances on Pseudo shows began to be “repurposed” for public-access cable. Luvvy still appears today on Pseudo’s Cherrybomb channel.
“Luvvy is based on Mrs. Howell, from Thurston and Luvvy,” Harris says. “Do you know Gilligan?” he asks, trying to explain. “Gilligan’s Island was the most influential show to me by far. One summer, Sherwood Schwartz wrote a season’s worth of Gilligan’s Island episodes, and when you write that much, your subconscious starts taking over. A lot of Sherwood Schwartz’s tendencies manifested themselves in the show, and his psyche was beamed into the consciousness of a generation.”
Luvvy is Harris’s “pseudo,” his net alias. “Luvvy is that unresolved orgasmic energy you get when you go on the Net, the rerouted sexual energy you can let out in the new identities you can assume online,” he says. “I realized I am a gay man trapped in a heterosexual body. I have those sensibilities, but the funny thing is, I love women.” Pseudo’s investors all know Luvvy and “gotta love the love,” Harris insists. “They know I have my reasons and that it is actually positive for the company.”
“I’d rather not comment on that,” says Shawn Luetchens, manager of Tribune Ventures, Tribune Company’s venture-capital arm. “We think Pseudo is the best of the breed. Josh has the right ideas about this market, he is the best at gathering the right kind of talent for it, and he knows how to make his vision a reality. But I don’t have a lot of confidence in Josh’s creative work.”
Edward Ryeom, former associate in the venture-capital firm Prospect Street Ventures and a Pseudo board member, agrees. “I am indifferent to Luvvy,” he says, “but Pseudo’s brand of microcasting is the future of broadcasting. Their downtown Manhattan stuff helped them build the brand and the platform. Now we intend to diversify to different interest groups, as appropriate to someone living in Seattle as SoHo.”
“In this new world, eccentricity is a good thing,” says Strauss Zelnick, who follows netcasting as the U.S. head of the media company BMG. “You have to be able to take risks that the conventional wisdom thinks are a little crazy.”
At 11 p.m. on a recent night, Josh Harris is standing in the empty basement of a lower Broadway warehouse building. Earlier in the day, he was giving DreamWorks’ Jeffrey Katzenberg and Imagine Entertainment’s Brian Grazer a tour of the Pseudo office, but now he’s leading another group on a walk through a world that so far exists only in his head. He has brought two dozen artists and performers, along with the German art dealer Leo Koenig, to Chinatown, where he’s setting up Quiet, his millennium-ending art installation and party to end all parties. “This is it,” he tells Koenig, stepping around an abandoned couch. “This will be the VIP area, the heart of the new civilization.”
Chinese work crews are completely refurbishing the space, whose centerpiece will be a room containing rows of “millennium capsules,” each a tiny living cubicle modeled on Japanese economy hotels. Fifteen artists who have already signed on and twenty or so supporting staff will begin moving into them by the middle of December. So will Harris. He plans to have 80 of them filled for a grand finale during the last days of the year.
The central concept of Quiet, Harris says, is that all the capsules will be wired with a two-way audio-visual cable system, so anyone in the “hotel” can tune in to anyone else. Programming will be available from the outside, too – Gilligan’s Island, for example. On the five other floors, there will be performance artists, poetry readings, video installations, a bar run by the “vampires,” three meals a day, board games, D.J.’s, and a dance floor.
The name, Harris says, came to him in the middle of the night about three months ago. He heard a voice that told him, “In order to hear the universal vibration, you must have quiet.”
As Harris paces the length of the room, barking orders to Koenig and Quiet’s new staff, you can almost see what he has in mind. “This is going to be a merger of the physical and virtual worlds,” he says. “What we do in chat rooms is like cave paintings compared to what will be created in the new world we are moving into. That is what all this is about.”
Later, back at his loft, relaxing in front of a video of The Wizard of Oz, Harris reflects on his progress. He’s not entirely satisfied with the way some of the arrangements for Quiet are going, but he blames it on the fact that he’s been spending too much time working on Pseudo. “That is why I have got to get out,” he explains. “Get the company in good enough shape that I can sell it or hand it over, like I did at Jupiter. I’m almost there – just a few more moves. Running a business is like a steel trap, and steel traps are not friendly to little varmints like me.”