Originally created 03/01/97

Microsoft Network cancels online shows



SEATTLE - Microsoft's quest to make its online network more like television has succeeded in at least one respect: The network's "shows" apparently are vulnerable to sudden yanking just like programs produced in Hollywood.

Employees learned recently that about 10 of the two dozen shows on the Microsoft Network, or MSN, Microsoft's computer online service, will be canceled this spring, and scores of contract workers will lose their jobs. The notification came via an e-mail memo from managers with no explanation of why individual shows were canceled.

Microsoft officials said an estimated 100 to 200 temporary workers would lose their jobs. However, they said the move does not mean Microsoft is scaling back its online effort.

The shows, online content with story lines, were part of a splashy relaunch of MSN last fall. They range from quirky magazine-style layouts to more TV-style, episodic serials. Some use limited video, and many use sound.

MSN, which has 2 million subscribers, competes with the market leader, 8 million-member America Online.

One employee, who will stay on in another MSN job, said news of the cancellations wasn't as shocking as the manner in which they were announced - without elaboration.

"They didn't know what it was all about," the employee said of Microsoft officials. "They had no idea what they were getting into. So they go for a few months, then they start weeding things out. I guess you could say that's nice for them, but it's kind of harsh on the workers."

Last October, at an event to promote the coming relaunch of the network, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said the company was willing to lose $300 million to $400 million a year for three years on its interactive media ventures. The MSN shows, while available only to members of the service and not publicly out on the World Wide Web, have been seen as an experiment in using video and high-end graphics in ways that could eventually transfer to the Web.

"We've said we're in this long-term," said Larry Cohen, group product manager for MSN.

New shows are being produced both inside and outside Microsoft to replace those that are canceled, Cohen said. The company recently announced a deal with Jim Henson Productions, the creator of the Muppets.

Among the shows being canceled:

- "475 Madison," a soap-opera-style serial.

- "How Long?" a collection of blurbs answering how long it takes for certain things to happen.

- "Retrospect 360," a magazine-style look at historical events.

- And "15 Seconds of Fame," a series of funny vignettes from viewers, kind of an online version of Funniest Home Videos, without the video.

Shows to be renewed include:

- "Underwire," a women's magazine.

- "Mint," an arts and culture magazine.

- And "V-Style," which focuses on style and design.

None of the shows was ever guaranteed a permanent spot on the online service. Microsoft executives stressed before the launch that it would model the service and its six new "channels" (categories of content) after a 13-week "season," like television. Some shows would be hits while others would flop.

Cohen said decisions were based on viewership and the ability to sell advertising for each show.

"The idea of shows coming in and coming out throughout the seasons, that keeps the network fresh," he said.