A blast from the past?

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Several years after some major entertainment companies launched ambitious, now mostly failed, online entertainment sites, Sony is entering the fray. Today, its Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment unit unveils Screenblast.com, a site that's notable both for its ambitions and its timing, more than a year into the dot-com meltdown.

The site is aimed primarily at 18-24 year olds, the main audience that would access-and technologically grasp-its content. According to Mike Arrieta, VP-operations, Sony estimates as many as 10 million college students can access broadband from their dorms, and that all told, about 30 million people have broadband access.

Still, the site may not be as extravagant as it looks. According to Steven Vonder Haar, an analyst with Yankee Group, companies with deep digital assets can afford such initiatives. "Can the incremental cost really be all that high?" he asked."

Mr. Arrieta said Sony is launching the site to tap into a young audience that is already heavy into creating user-generated media. Sony, which has a vast array of content, wanted in on what it thinks is the future of storytelling, with people creating and connecting constantly. Sony is giving visitors access to Sony editing technology, and allowing them to create their own showcases of up to 50 megabytes of free disk space on Sony servers.

"We believe this is the right time," Mr. Arrieta said. "We need to be telling stories in the digital space."

The site uses both Sony content, and additional entertainment from outside providers, offering visitors, for instance, the opportunity to create their own online story set in Capeside, the fictitious setting of the WB network's hit show "Dawson's Creek." In the comedy section of the site, Screenblast is launching an animated series based on the Julius & Friends fashion characters (a monkey, bear and giraffe) and produced by Mondo Media.

Visitors can e-mail the short clips to friends and also, using the "Mix Monkey" create their own tunes. If all of this is reminiscent of long-ago stabs at true, interactive entertainment, those involved with Screenblast think the new entertainment may have a better chance for success. "At this stage, all you hope for is that there are going to be success stories," said Jan Mallis, executive producer at Mondo.

The site's ambitions illustrate how complicated online media has become since its earlier attempts at entertainment content. While one objective is to drive audience for Sony content, the site is also intended to drive usage and desire for Sony hardware, since content can be created on-and for-digital devices ranging from digital cameras to pocket PCs. However, even as Screenblast openly promotes all aspects of the Sony stable, it is also creating ad models for outside advertisers such as the "broadband slider," an ad unit that slides out of the left hand side of the monitor for a 10-second viewing and that can be accessed again via tabs at any time. Ads will also be dispersed virally; content, even that created by users, can be sponsored by advertisers and spread via e-mail. Advertisers on a preview version of the site last week included Verizon, Kellogg's Corn Pops and J.C. Penney Co.

"There is no shortage of advertising opportunities [online]," said Mr. Arrieta. "What there is is a shortage of unique opportunities."

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