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Tom Arnold - MSN's secret weapon against Google

'Lovably flawed'

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Last week Microsoft alarmed investors by saying it would spend $2bn more than expected to take on web rivals including Google.

The overspend led Goldman Sachs analyst Rick Sherlund to ask Microsoft's chief financial officer Chris Liddell whether Microsoft is building a secret weapon, a Google or a Yahoo!, inside the company. Liddell denied this.

Six days later, though, we can reveal the name of that $2bn secret weapon: Tom Arnold. The New York Times reports Microsoft has signed a one-year, "multi-million dollar" deal to produce a series of ten Web TV pilot shows called MSN Originals for the loss-making MSN. (Liddell clearly wasn't joking when he told Wall St Microsoft's investments in new areas "do add up.")

America's bullish Mr Funny is close to signing on the dotted line in one particular MSN Original, as a "lovably flawed pilot for a commuter airline", in a show billed as The Office meets Reno 911 meets Airplane. MSN Originals are being steered by Ben Silverman, producer of The Office and The Biggest Loser on US network NBC, and the man who helped bring reality TV to American audiences.

Microsoft appears to have put the failure of past MSN TV shows behind it. The company spent $100m on a web show called 475 Madison, described as a "dark comedy" about a New York ad agency, and on Project: Watchfire, a "serious" look at UFOs, during 1996 and 1997, when it viewed the internet as a garden it could put fences around and charge people to enter. Ahh, the early days of MSN.

The NYT article notes: "In November 1996, when MSN announced its transition from a proprietary service to a Web supersite, it unveiled a lineup of more than two dozen shows for what its executives - borrowing from the language of television - called a new season. In the ensuing months it found itself mimicking another tradition of the television business when it canceled almost all of the shows. Within a few years Microsoft had dumped nearly all of the original entertainment programming for more practical, utilitarian services."

Gayle Toberman, director of branded entertainment and experiences for MSN, reportedly speculated Microsoft had "invested too much too quickly in content" when neither the broadband connections were available or audiences exited.

We'd argue that the audiences still don't exist - not for the proposed MSN content, at least. Microsoft would be better advised to spend its money forging deals with the networks to bring existing hit shows to MSN - content like The Office (ironically) that people are paying Apple to watch - rather than trying to herd people towards its own brand of unproven content.

That would leave Microsoft to focus on its core business - building client and server software - and means turning MSN into a content middleman, not a producer, like any respectable, over the air download service.®

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