BEFUDDLED BY 'CONVERGENCE'? A N.Y. SHOP SHOWS THE WAY

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You're out with a pal and you pop a few drinks and you get through your complaints and his amours, and then, finally, inevitably, that word comes up: "convergence." And you nod your head as if you know what he's talking about and then move on in the same muddle you started in.

Pssst, buddy. Wanna learn about convergence? Hop downtown to 90 John St. and visit Thoughtbubble Productions, a young New York company that's prodding the media and marketing industries' grayer heads to an understanding that convergence ain't beanbag -- or radio or TV or anything now out there.

Thoughtbubble calls itself the only production company dedicated to works created specifically for broadband -- for the high-velocity Internet access provided by cable modems and DSL telephone lines. Broadband speed turns the still clunky Web into a nifty medium for distribution of video, animation and sound -- for everything currently sitting inside your media cabinet and then some.

It's the "and then some" that Thoughtbubble understands deeply and intuitively. As Scott Rigby, the company's president, says, "The way to understand broadband is that it does for creative production what the word processor did for writing: It opens it up and makes it easier."

Mr. Rigby, now 33, was a clinical psychologist pursuing post-doctoral studies when in 1995 he became enamored of the communitarian and educational possibilities of the nascent Web. With college friend Jonathan Heck, then an L.A. TV producer, he hatched his production company. It started out doing plain vanilla site design, mostly for media companies. About two years ago, working with several cable operators, Messrs. Rigby and Heck began to see the promise of broadband and opted to specialize.

"Cable operators do not know from content. Network owners do not know from technology. And none of them really know the new media," Mr. Rigby says. "So we decided to become the bridge."

Even two years ago, it took foresight to look at the Web's flip-card style videos and listen to its crystal-diode audio and imagine a future of a billion networks.

Thoughtbubble forged ahead and launched a site for cable's Bravo network: a fluid, bright and intelligent amalgam of clips from and information about the arts-and-entertainment service's most popular shows.

There's only one problem with the site: Instead of using broadband to break new programming ground, Bravo made it nothing but a marketing tool for an old-media network. The same is true of Thoughtbubble's even more daring creations. For American Movie Classics, it assembled a prototype "American Pop" network, a time machine trip into the 1960s held together by delightful, campy animation. But where this viewer desired "I Was a Teenage Frankenstein" in its entirety, he received only a few feeble clips.

"Eighty-five, 90% of the work we do, its purpose is to market and promote stuff in other media," concedes Mr. Heck, Thoughtbubble's exec VP. "It doesn't feel like the future to us," he adds with dismay. "It feels like the present."

Conventional media companies, say the Thoughtbubblers, tend not to get another component of convergence: its cost structure. "What's cool, what's amazing, is the Net, like radio, is a relatively cheap production medium," Mr. Heck says.

Too many TV companies, though, are fixated on high production spending -- even if viewers will happily tolerate a bit less. As evidence, there is the fast-pace automotive channel they created specifically for Media One, the cable company recently acquired by AT&T Corp. An interactive documentary that follows a Formula One team from preparation through a race, the long-form video interviews, racing scenes, "virtual" engineering shop tour and more cost all of $40,000.

Similarly, Thoughtbubble's convergence concoction for the Independent Film Channel, a cornucopia of clips, filmmaker inter- views and other info that may comprise new media's best resource on contemporary indie film, was crafted almost entirely from material handed over gratis by moviemakers.

But even here, the promo demon lurks on the surface, stomping on convergence's greatest potential: to host new multimedia net- works -- amalgams of audio, video and text, of on-demand content and classic "appointment" programs.

Psst, buddy. Do you understand convergence now? If so, give Thoughtbubble a few grand, and let them create a real network for you. "The mindshare," as Jon Heck puts it, "will be priceless."

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