As Discovery orbited the Earth early last month, millions of people visited Yahoo, which runs the most popular news site on the Internet, to see the nail-biting conclusion to the troubled shuttle mission. Could NASA find a way to bring the astronauts home safely?
Despite the drama and the huge number of people flocking to the site, Lloyd Braun, the television impresario hired last year to oversee Yahoo's media operation, was not satisfied. All Yahoo was offering its users, Braun fumed, was a white page filled with links to other sites on the Web.
He made his frustration clear to Scott Moore, who had defected from Microsoft to run Yahoo's news operation. Within a few hours, Moore orchestrated a quick fix to make the shuttle page comply with Braun's mantras: "more immersive," "more engaging," and most of all, more original programming.
Braun's handiwork is just starting to be seen at Yahoo. And as he increasingly puts his stamp on the company, the rest of the media -- both old and new -- are watching carefully, if not nervously.
When he was chairman of ABC's entertainment group, Braun had a penchant for big offbeat concepts like Lost, which just won the Emmy for best drama. At Yahoo, why not create programs in genres that have worked on TV but are not present on the Web? Sitcoms, dramas, talk shows, even a short daily humorous take on the news much like Jon Stewart's The Daily Show are in the works.
There will be elaborate attention-grabbing events and video-heavy programs in nearly every category of content Yahoo offers, from sports to health. The first is called Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone, an audio-video-photo-blog-chat room, run by Sites, an experienced foreign correspondent, who plans to visit many war zones over the next year.
All this Hollywood frenzy raises a question: Is Terry Semel, Yahoo's chief executive and the former co-head of Warner Brothers, trying to turn Yahoo into the interactive studio of future?
The short answer is yes, but Semel's ambitions are far bigger and more complex than that. He wants Yahoo to be seen as akin to Warner's parent, Time Warner, which mixes content from the likes of Warner's studios and CNN, with distribution, like its cable systems. Yahoo is both of those and a lot of software, too.
Semel describes a strategy built on four pillars: First, is search, of course, to fend off Google, which has become the fastest-growing Internet company. Next comes community, as he calls the vast growth of content contributed by everyday users and semiprofessionals like bloggers. Third is the professionally created content that Braun oversees -- made both by Yahoo and other traditional media providers. And last is personalization technology, to help users sort through vast choices to find what interests them.
Madison Avenue's rush to advertise online is feeding this activity, both the simple but highly targeted text ads that flash on Web searches and the Internet versions of television commercials.
Increasingly, Semel and others are finding that the long promised convergence of television and computers is happening not by way of elaborate systems created by cable companies, but from the bottom up as video clips on the Internet become easier to use and more interesting.
Already, video search engines, run by Yahoo and others, have indexed more than 1 million clips, and only now are the big media outlets like Viacom and Time Warner moving to put some of their quality video online.