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Builder of E! Shifts Focus to Wireless

June 20, 2005|Sallie Hofmeister | Times Staff Writer

Lee Masters, who is credited with building E! Entertainment Television, hasn't played a high-profile role in the media industry in years. After cashing out of the cable channel in 1998, he ran an interactive TV company for four years, and then retired.

Now, he's back. Today Idetic Inc., a Berkeley-based company that provides video content to cellphone users, is expected to announce that the 53-year-old Los Angeles entrepreneur has become a director, investor and senior advisor.

But don't call him Masters. That's no longer his name.

When he retired in 2002, the executive abandoned the moniker he'd assumed when he was a radio disc jockey 35 years earlier, reverting to his real name: Jarl Mohn (pronounced yarl moan).

Now that Mohn works with Idetic, he says it's considering a name change too. He predicted the company would soon adopt the more consumer-friendly brand used by its video-over-cellular service, MobiTV.

Launched in 2003 on Sprint PCS, MobiTV has hundreds of thousands of subscribers, mostly in the U.S., on carriers that also include Cingular Wireless, Mohn said.

When Idetic reached out to Mohn last November, he said, he was initially reluctant to become a full-time executive again. But after doing extensive research on the cellular sector, he agreed to advise the company if he could become a major investor.

"I'll be involved day to day in helping to set strategy and in marketing, personnel, talent relationships," said Mohn, who serves on the boards of three established media companies: E.W. Scripps Co., CNet Networks Inc. and XM Satellite Radio Inc.

Mohn said what appealed to him about MobiTV was its ability to offer live content to customers rather than simply downloadable clips. A recent survey by Jupiter Research found that 15% of cellphone users said they were interested in live TV, and only 7% expressed interest in clips such as those that are offered by MobiTV's leading rival, Vcast, launched by Verizon Wireless this year.

How many people will pay for the service remains to be seen. Though 43% of consumers in Jupiter's poll said they would view free video, only 19% said they would pay for the service.

MobiTV subscribers pay about $10 a month to access 23 channels, including ESPN, the Weather Channel, CNN and Discovery. Mohn said he would be expanding those channels and identifying new ones that MobiTV would create in-house. "It's got to be fun, interesting and utilitarian, but if it's priced too high, it won't work," Mohn said.

Mohn's own transformation wasn't as drastic as it sounds. Even when most people knew him as Masters, his driver's license and credit cards still bore his legal name. His wife and two daughters have always been named Mohn.

When he was at E!, he said, "I couldn't have proven to you that I was Lee Masters because the only thing I had was a business card. But there was just never the right time to change it back."

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