December 10, 1998 1:00 PM PST

Disney's dilemma: Family values on the Web

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For Disney, image is everything--especially on the Web.

The company soon will unveil its most ambitious Web initiative to date, the Go Network, a Web portal that will combine Disney-owned content with the search technology and portal-development know-how of Infoseek. When the curtain finally goes up on Go, Netizens will get their first glimpse of Disney's attempt to transplant its meticulously controlled family friendly offline image onto a notoriously renegade medium controlled democratically--some might say anarchically--by the unwashed masses.

In one of the first indications of Disney's ambitions to shape the Web in its own image, Infoseek--in which Disney owns a 43 percent stake--confirmed this week that it would discontinue selling adult entertainment ad banners and remove sexually explicit ads from its site. Ad banners with adult content typically have appeared on Infoseek only when a user searches for sexually explicit keywords, but now that Infoseek is powering Go's search engine, the company must hold up Disney's smut-free standards.

Infoseek is one of the first major portals to reverse its policy on adult advertising, and to forego the significant revenue generated from it. Yahoo, Lycos, and Excite, by contrast, all accept adult ads.

The censored Infoseek search engine is just one part of a suite of filtering products that Go will feature when it launches, according to an Infoseek spokeswoman.

In the past, Disney has been very sensitive about associating its brand--even indirectly--with the racier side of the Web. More than a year ago, for example, rumors circulated that Disney, then still searching for the best way to enter the Internet space, was in talks with various new media companies about possible partnerships. Disney apparently was uncomfortable, however, with the idea of associating with any company that hosted adult-oriented chat rooms, according to Jennifer Klein, a research analyst at Deutsche Bank.

Disney's foray online creates a certain conflict of interest for the company, according to some observers. On one hand, Disney wants to beef up its brand to be on a par with the new media elite, including America Online and Yahoo. On the flip side, pushing a family oriented brand onto a notoriously unrestrained medium could be complicated for Disney in that it would limit opportunities.

As a result, Disney must find a fragile balance between Web culture and Disney culture, observers said.

"They've got one really big card to play on the Net, and that's the Disney card," said a source close to Disney. "If Go is to stand a chance, then they have to play the Disney card. Therefore, everything in and around Go has to be consistent to what Disney means to everyone."

But conforming to Disney standards on the Web could prove an impossible task.

"The general idea was that [Disney] wanted to be this comprehensive, wholesome entertainment [offering]," said Deutsche Bank's Klein. She added, however, that no matter how much Disney tries to uphold its wholesome image, "the Internet is still going to be a resource for people who want to find stuff that you can't walk into a supermarket to get."

Disney, for its part, is aiming the Go Network at families that want a safe haven online. The portal is the culmination of Disney's often bumpy road toward making a major Web play. After introducing Daily Blast, a child-oriented online service, and Dig, a child-friendly search engine, both to lukewarm reception, the company has turned to established media properties to build on those developments and fill in the gaps of Disney's Web strategy.

The company is hoping to leverage its powerful brand, which encompasses a number of highly regarded media properties, such as ABC News and ESPN, to make Go the definitive Disney site.

What remains to be seen, however, is whether Disney can succeed on its own terms.

"I think [Disney] wants to cut out a chunk of [the Net]," said a source close to company. "But the Net is a great place for all sorts of stuff, including things that people classify as 'nasty' stuff."

 

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