Ta ta, TV portals

I'll miss that enthusiastic woman on those 30-second NBCi commercials, breathlessly calling the roll of just about every sub-category of content on the site. "One site—with everything you need" went the tag line. "One site—with more than you might ever need" would have been more like it.

Now, of course, NBCi has joined Go.com on the list of decommissioned portal battleships. And other network sites, some of which have certain portal characteristics, have been shedding employees by the hundreds.

Portals—a vision that didn't stand the test of time and wound up trying to fulfill a need that didn't exist. I believe the de-emphasis or demise of several television-related portals is attributable to flaws in execution, types of content offered, over-scaling and unrealistic revenue projections.

"The TV portals have been, almost to a case, ill-conceived, non-visionary, overpriced when being acquired, unremarkable, unclear, reactionary and badly executed," thunders GartnerGroup analyst Whit Andrews.

Andrew Goodman, editor in chief of the portals-news site Traffick (www.traffick.com), thinks the carnage is largely congenital. In his view, the broadcast portals were created out of an erroneous read of the marketplace—when the original aggregator portals such as Yahoo, AOL and Excite were attracting huge numbers of eyeballs.

Goodman believes that, as creators of their own content and as brands already familiar to consumers and advertisers, broadcasters thought they could offer some of their own news and feature-coverage online, supplement their contributions with acquired "partner" content and emulate the success of the early arrivals.

"AOL moved into a vacuum and established a brand. Its success in doing so does not mean fourth and fifth movers will have equal success. On the contrary, they will be trying to play the same game as AOL but without the benefit of AOL's subscription-based cash flow," Goodman says. "Portal services may be to some extent a commodity," he adds, "but also-rans were lulled into the mentality of 'we can build a copycat.' As it turned out, they generally did not keep up because they really weren't in the portal business in the way Yahoo was."

The broadcast portals were never able to catch up with the trailblazers. Jupiter Research analyst Patrick Keane likens the current portal situation to "television broadcasting in the 1950s," with three dominant players and little opportunity for startups to find a niche.

Goodman went on to say that core eyeball-count boosting services, such as e-mail, have been well executed by the likes of Yahoo and AOL but were never really well developed at NBCi and Go.com.

If you remember, the search function was also going to be a killer app. "This agreement stakes out an even more ambitious role for Disney in this promising medium and provides an ideal partnership for the creation of a new Internet portal service," Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner said in June 1998 when the company made its initial, $465 million investment in search engine Infoseek.

There aren't many ways to monetize searches, however. You can sell banner ads that pop up when certain search phrases are entered by site visitors, but that model has never added more than incremental revenue.

As part of the Infoseek acquisition, Disney also picked up Ultraseek, an on-site search tool marketed to corporations. Disney, however, didn't seem to know what to do with Ultraseek and sold it to search-technology supplier Inktomi. As search engines, Go.com and NBCi (which bought Snap) never caught up with newer, faster and more comprehensive rivals, such as Google.

Despite the death of broadcasting-entity general portals, however, Goodman and other analysts do not see gloom for television Web sites. They see opportunity in a scaled-down model in which site content is directly related to on-air content.

"The broadcast companies can and should do a lot online, though not necessarily as 'portals,'" says Goodman. "They can throw their weight around a bit and show off their deep pockets. There is a lot of cool stuff you can do: run contests, games, etc.—do things that are an adjunct to a popular TV series."

Russell Shaw can be reached at