VIACOM ONLINE TAPS AMBRON

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Viacom is turning to a multimedia visionary to drive its expansion into online media.

Sueann Ambron, 49, last week was named exec VP in charge of the newly formed Viacom Online Services. The New York-based unit hopes to leverage the strengths of Viacom's entertainment brands, including Paramount, MTV, Nickelodeon and Showtime, into the online environment.

Ms. Ambron will continue to oversee Media Kitchen, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based design and production studio formed by Paramount Communications.

That unit now creates online and interactive TV content for Viacom Interactive Media, the unit to which she reports. (Viacom acquired Paramount earlier this year.)

"The current generation of online is just the beginning," said Ms. Ambron, who expects to help adapt brands like MTV for the techno-savvy generation of viewers. "You don't just take it as it is and put it into new media. You have to reinvent it."

That means more than just hawking merchandise in an expansion of MTV's recently launched test of TV home-shopping.

"It may have transactions, but it's not going to be transactions without a lot of entertainment," she said of Viacom's planned online foray.

In typical Viacom fashion, executives declined to identify a timetable for expansion into online services, or whether they envision a single service encompassing all programming brands or separate entities for each.

Despite drawing loyal viewers away from their TVs and toward computer screens, Ms. Ambron believes going online will enhance-rather than cannibalize-Viacom's audiences by drawing users closer to the programs they already watch.

"What's it like when the writers of a show have access to the people watching the show?" she wonders, describing one possible application.

Viacom's MTV already tested an online service on America Online, during this summer's Lollapalooza music festival, and the Nickelodeon kids channel uses existing online services to elicit feedback from a panel of its young viewers.

Before joining Paramount, Ms. Ambron worked at Apple Computer for nine years, as a founder of its Multimedia Lab.

Earlier, she handled software development for Atari, an early videogame pioneer, and taught at Stanford University.

Given that background, some industry observers questioned her appointment to the new post.

"She's a visionary, [and] is used to very experimental, leading-edge kind of work," said Bruce Ryon, multimedia analyst at Dataquest, a San Jose, Calif.-based researcher. "I'm surprised they didn't put somebody more experienced with brand management and brand strategy, because she'll have to build existing [brand] identities instead of creating them."

Ms. Ambron counters that the product-development skills honed in her 15-year corporate career make her a perfect candidate for the job.

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