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Excite Bucks Trend, Courts Hollywood

March 19, 1999|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK, entertainment & technology reporter

While most attention has been focused on big media companies buying a presence on the Web--witness Barry Diller's attempt to merge the Lycos search engine with parts of his USA Networks--one major Internet company is taking steps to become better known in Hollywood.

Excite, the search engine and Internet "portal" that is the seventh-busiest Web site, took the unusual step of co-sponsoring a key event at last week's Screen Actors Guild Awards festivities.

For a charitable donation of $60,000 and a further undisclosed payment, Excite got its banner displayed at the SAG gala following the awards show--along with those of co-sponsors Neutrogena and People magazine--and the right to host exclusive online chats with SAG lifetime achievement award recipient Kirk Douglas and other prominent actors. Excite also got 15 seconds of commercial time on TNT, which broadcast the ceremony.

More important, perhaps, the company got a chance to bask in a little of SAG's Hollywood cachet.

That's an important part of the Web site's effort to set itself apart from such competitors as Yahoo and Walt Disney's Go Network. As Web portals, all three are designed to function as Web users' initial jump-off spots for excursions on the Internet.

But all face the problem that they offer essentially indistinguishable services--e-mail for registered users, search capabilities allowing users to hunt down special interests on the Web, and one-click access to other popular sites.

"We believe we're in a perfect position to be on the front edge of the convergence of the two industries [the Internet and entertainment]," said Fred Siegel, Excite's senior vice president, marketing. "Excite is perceived as a hipper brand, more forward-thinking."

He also hopes that by associating itself with big Hollywood events and giving the company a higher profile in the entertainment business, Excite will have a leg up in landing exclusive deals for Webcasts and online chats with stars.

By most accounts Excite has been more aggressive than its rivals in pushing itself forward--although at least one competitor argues that is because it's an also-ran.

"I'm not sure we have to market to key entertainment executives," said Grant Winfrey, senior brand manager at Yahoo, the top-rated portal site. "A huge number of entertainment people call us" to arrange Webcasts and exclusive chats for stars in music, television and the movies, he said.

Still, Excite hopes its initiative demonstrates that it and other Internet companies are ready to move into the mainstream of entertainment with other leading brands--a must for success in cyberspace, given that a plurality of Web surfers say they are looking for entertainment information.

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