Centerseat takes centerstage online with its seamless blend of audio, video, text and commerce.
There she is, hair as big as all outdoors, smiling supremely as she steps to the podium to announce her reunion tour. Yes, it's Diana Ross, the latest diva found. But the footage, complete with video montages and music, isn't playing on your TV.
No, it's streaming into a small box at the center of your computer screen. And while Miss Ross beams amid a hail of popping flashbulbs, the lower left corner of your computer screen serves up info about the Supremes' Detroit hometown and history, while at the lower right, an array of Supremes-, Motown- and music-related products for sale has begun scrolling into view.
All of it--video, audio, text and commerce--is as tightly orchestrated as an early Supremes performance itself. And all of it, from the original electronic press kit to the online programming to the history and e-commerce tie-in, has been produced by Centerseat, a New York-based digital media and commerce company chosen by IQ as this year's Best Integrated Content and Commerce Experience.
What a year it's been.
Founded in April 1999 by Scott Harmolin, Lee Haddad and Mark Haefeli, Centerseat was born in Harmolin's basement when he and Haddad began brainstorming their next step. Harmolin had recently sold the last company he had founded--Icon CMT Corp., an Internet service provider, in a $185 million stock swap with Qwest Communications--and Haddad, as vp of corporate development, had followed.
"Very quickly, we decided to do this and we got involved with Mark Haefeli," explains Harmolin. "We met and within a week had this basic concept put together and the structure of the company put together."
That structure--which has Harmolin serving as CEO, Haddad as president and Haefeli as executive vice president--is built on a foundation that was Second Coming Productions, Haefeli's award-winning video and TV production company that is already producing integrated content for Centerseat, while also continuing its work-for-hire video production business. Meanwhile, Centerseat has also built an archive of more than 100,000 hours of classic TV and films dating back to 1908--which is currently being cleansed, digitized and audio- and color-corrected--much of which Centerseat will be able to distribute offline on broadcast, cable and satellite TV as well.
In the meantime, Centerseat and its 85 staffers have been making deal after deal, signing on big names to both back up its business--Terry Baker, formerly a senior producer for Good Morning America now serves as vp of news and information programming--as well as front its shows--former CNN and NBC reporter Mary Alice Williams is already developing and hosting several shows for the company.
And Centerseat is offering more than 1 million products online.
"What we've basically done is bring together point of interest with point of purchase," says Harmolin. And yet, "we purposely have not integrated 'hot spots' in the video for clicking on for say, a shirt, because that shirt is going to go out of style one day and the video will become useless in terms of selling that shirt. So what we'd rather do is talk about the shirt and tag the video as a way to sell the shirt whether its in style or on sale or whatever the partner is promoting."
It's an approach that works, says Joe Salesky, chairman and CEO of Irvine, Calif.-based Skytron Corp., which recently negotiated a mall-based programming deal with Centerseat. According to Salesky, whose background is interactive television, the key to Centerseat's success is its ability to create high-quality programming mixed with interesting information, while incorporating an interface that allows users to back up and revisit ancillary information easily.
"You really have to orchestrate it, and it takes a couple of elements that Centerseat has done uniquely well," explains Salesky. "One is to develop an interface--those interstitials are coming up in the context, but the viewer's attention is typically focused on the content. The person doing programming has to realize that these ancillaries could be distracting, so a person may need to go back to them."
To address that, Centerseat has created a system of "bricks" allowing users to click back to revisit any ancillary content. "That's one of the keys," says Salesky. "They've come up with an approach that you can note, 'That was something around the midbrick,' and it does work."
Another important factor is the ancillary content and commerce itself. To work, Salesky says the information and commerce must be both interesting and non-invasive. "If it was solely commerce information, you would just treat it as banner," he says. "But because it's both ancillary information and commerce information, you tend to treat both with a higher level of interest. You don't tune them out because in that space [are] things you might want to know."
While Centerseat.com is the most visible aspect of Centerseat, it's only one of the company's many irons in the fire. For example, in February, the company began providing exclusive programming for MillsTV, a network consisting of video walls, parlor screens and overhead monitors seen by 162 million shoppers annually as they pass through one of Mills Corp.'s
10 enormous malls nationwide. "With every segment's intro and outro, you see Centerseat," says Harmolin. "And everyone walking through Mills malls will know who Centerseat is."
And then there's Centerseat's growing business creating co-branded, B2C Web sites using its content-and-commerce approach and its B2B program where Centerseat plugs its production and platform capabilities into other companies' Web environments. Centerseat additionally has signed on with Borders.com to create Borders Vision, a co-branded site set to launch this month that will feature interactive programming created from the more than 90,000 live events Borders hosts each year. As part of the Borders deal, Centerseat not only creates programming for Borders Vision, but has exclusive rights to show the events on Centerseat.com. Centerseat also receives a transaction fee from any Borders Vision purchase. Says Harmolin, "All the things that we do not only generate revenue, they generate awareness for the company."
At Borders, Rich Fahle, manager of online content, says the deal brings his company a level of professional programming and integrated commerce that would have been hard to create on its own. "Centerseat has created a model that I think is going take care of those who can get to it now and certainly is going to be ready for the future explosion when broadband hits."
Not that Centerseat is waiting for broadband to explode. First, says Harmolin, "it's not as pretty as you might want it to be, but a 56K modem is pretty functional." And then there are those 1.5 million homes already wired for interactive television. "Our presentation model that we have on Centerseat.com will work beautifully on interactive television," says Harmolin. "So we're looking at that as an outlet as well as broadband Internet."
Eventually, says Harmolin, Centerseat hopes to shift revenue from solely production to include advertising and sponsorship, with transaction fees from e-commerce representing the "lion's share." Harmolin won't say, however, what Centerseat's revenue is now or what he hopes it will be. He also won't divulge viewership statistics surrounding Centerseat.com, which soft launched in March and will hard launch in the third quarter with an updated version of its technology platform that will make it more narrow-band accessible.
In the meantime, Centerseat's motto remains "many outlets and even more programming." "It's hard not to do this," argues Harmolin. "It makes total sense. We're doing it, and our biggest challenge is to try to convince the world that this makes sense."
In fact, says Harmolin, Centerseat's model is a little like a perpetual motion machine in that "a lot of the content that we end up using for our own purposes we get paid to create. We understand it, but to get the rest of the world to understand it and appreciate it and not be afraid of it because it doesn't fit into some traditional boxes--that is our biggest challenge."--Jennifer Owen