Internet powerhouse CMGI Inc. joins the crowded online entertainment space today with the official launch of ICast.com, a Web site counting on the deep pockets of its parent to help it grab a share of the growing audience for digital video and music.
ICast, whose launch was delayed by a battle among executives, joins a cluttered field. More than a dozen companies already serve short films, cartoons and other entertainment aimed at teens and adults.
But ICast, which is holding a glitzy launch party tonight in West Hollywood, aims to offer a broader array of content than many of its rivals. And ICast executives also say they are planning to spend as much as $100 million in marketing over the next few years.
"There are a lot of people doing similar programming and targeting a young, hip alternative audience," said David Card, an analyst at market researcher Jupiter Communications in New York. "But CMGI has money, staying power and a unique opportunity to leverage its other sites for technology, management and promotion."
Andover, Mass.-based CMGI has stakes in more than 60 online firms, including game site Gamers.com and Web portal AltaVista.
But until now, CMGI did not have a significant play in the market for video and music online, a market that is expected to expand rapidly based on projections that as many as 30 million households could have high-speed Internet connections within five years.
The leading players so far include such companies as Seattle-based AtomFilms.com, and Ifilm.com of Los Angeles, both of which offer short films and cartoons. Traditional entertainment companies have also launched sites, including Entertaindom.com, a site operated by Warner Bros.
CMGI didn't intend to give these sites such a head start. It formed ICast more than a year ago and hired former NBC television executive Neil Braun as chief executive. But Braun and CMGI argued over the site's focus, which led to Braun's ouster in November. Braun has filed a $50-million suit against CMGI.
ICast regrouped by merging with another CMGI site, ZineZone, whose chief executive, Margaret Heffernan, now runs the combined company. She said in a phone interview Wednesday that the company has since tripled its staff to more than 140 employees and is rapidly building its content collection.
Advertising-driven entertainment sites "need mountains and mountains of content," she said. "Otherwise you don't have the millions of page views per day that you need to be a real business."
ICast has already done deals with some content creators, such as San Francisco-based Mondo Media. But it doesn't plan to pay for the bulk of its content. Instead, it aims to attract submissions from young filmmakers, musicians and Internet users. The company is expected to announce today a contest in which filmmakers can win prizes of as much as $40,000 for submissions in five short film categories.
ICast has a number of unique offerings. It created its own "player" program that enables users to send messages to one another while watching a video or listening to a song. It also uses software from Macromedia to build mini-profiles of the artists featured on the site.
ICast aims to close the gap with rivals by spending heavily on marketing.
"It costs $50 [million] to $100 million to build a brand online," Heffernan said, adding that CMGI is prepared to spend that much on an advertising push that will begin this spring.