March 8, 2001 11:20 AM PST

AOL taps studio exec to run AOLTV

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America Online on Wednesday appointed a veteran New Line Cinema executive as president of AOLTV in an effort to shepherd the interactive TV division into homes across the country.

The appointment of Robert Friedman marks the latest example of executive and operational crossovers within AOL Time Warner, the parent company of America Online and New Line Cinema. Until now, Friedman had headed marketing for the studio and served as president of New Line Television.

Friedman sits on a stack of resources that can be used to turn AOLTV into a household name. AOL already has the largest online audience, with more than 28 million paying members who potentially could upgrade to AOLTV. He plans to work closely with AOL Time Warner's TV and entertainment assets, such as the Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema studios, to produce interactive programming.

"As this becomes a mass medium, one of biggest challenges is getting it out there," Friedman said in an interview. "I would not have pursued this if I didn't think this is the perfect timing for this."

Despite all the hype, the big question is whether anyone is biting. To date, AOL has not released data on how well AOLTV has sold, but it is selling in Circuit City stores nationwide. Future versions of the product will come equipped with a digital video recorder produced by TiVo and access to satellite programming through DirecTV.

Interactive TV is in the nascent stage of its development into a mainstream product. Its components sit on top of a TV set and hook into a phone line, allowing viewers to use Internet-type features while watching their favorite programs.

For example, the current version of AOLTV lets people send instant messages or browse through an on-screen program guide. Future versions could allow viewers to purchase items or obtain more information while watching programs.

Entertainment and technology giants alike are trying to stake claims to the TV set of the future. Microsoft, which owns WebTV, plans to release Ultimate TV, a TV box that offers interactive and satellite TV, a digital video recorder, and Internet access.

Meanwhile, media and entertainment competitors such as Walt Disney, General Electric's NBC and Viacom all have plans to create interactive programming. Disney went so far as to aggressively lobby regulators to impose restrictions on AOL Time Warner before its merger, fearing that the company would favor its own content over competitors' on its high-speed cable network or interactive TV system.

Friedman's appointment comes after other executive shuffles within AOL Time Warner. Earlier this week, the company merged its TV operations into one division and appointed WB Network head Jaime Kellner as the top executive. Kellner will oversee WB as well as Turner Broadcasting's assets, including TBS, CNN and the Atlanta Braves.

Friedman, who will report to America Online Chief Executive Barry Schuler, said he plans to pursue relationships with other content providers in the same way that ABC, which is owned by Disney, pays Warner Bros. for "The Drew Carey Show."

"Anyone who thinks we can do it in-house has got to be crazy," Friedman said. "We want to be in the business with everyone."

 

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