In Drew Massey's world, there's not much separating confidence from cockiness. The 35-year-old entrepreneur tosses around names like Ted Turner and Jeff Bezos as nonchalantly as if they were drinking buddies, and smiles knowingly as he argues that ManiaTV!, a web-based television network he founded last September, is more than capable of becoming a billion-dollar business. "We're shooting to be the Viacom of the Internet," he announces. "We intend to win the race for viral television on the Internet, and right now, we have the lead. We just have to keep running faster than everybody else."
The programming on ManiaTV!, accessible at www.ManiaTV.com, is hardly groundbreaking. The main channel is dominated by music videos featuring current stars such as Rob Thomas and live chatter from a team of twelve cyber-jockeys, or CJs, much like during the nascent days of MTV. The differences, then, have more to do with technology and distribution methods than content. A pop-up player lets computer users listen to ManiaTV! audio while doing other things or actively watch and communicate directly with CJs, who have the power to pull videos in mid-note if enough viewers complain. "This is something kids can control," Massey maintains, "and it's coming to them on the medium they spend most of their time on. And they can use it anywhere. Now that all the campuses are wi-fi, students can get out their laptops and watch it in the lunchroom, in the classroom, in the toilet."
Approximately 1.6 million folks visited ManiaTV! in June (up from one million in March), and the mainstream media has taken notice of the concept's growth. A puffy Associated Press article about ManiaTV! appeared in USA Today and dozens of other papers in April, and Massey starred in a lengthy interview on CNN Headline News shortly thereafter. An online-media story that ran on the front page of the June 30 Los Angeles Times was just as upbeat -- ManiaTV! received top billing over both Yahoo and the Walt Disney Co. -- and the arrival of two prominent new hires is apt to generate more positive notices. Blender publisher Malcolm Campbell, who left the trendy music magazine in April, recently joined ManiaTV! as its executive vice president of sales, and Peter Clemente, the author of the well-regarded 1997 book The State of the Net, went from serving as a senior vice president of customer-relationship marketing for Sony to a gig as Massey's chief marketing officer.
Clemente, who's accustomed to executive suites, now reports to a workspace carved out of an old school bus in the ManiaTV! studio, a sprawling warehouse in one of Denver's industrial neighborhoods. The vehicle, which is parked steps away from a larger bus that serves as one of the network's main broadcasting spaces, has such a low ceiling that he must stoop as he makes his way to his desk. Even so, he's glad to be aboard, he says, because "I believe in Drew. You can have a great idea, but you need the ability to execute it. Well, Drew has the vision, and he has the ability, too."
CJ Christy Kruzick jokingly refers to Massey as "the man behind the curtain," in reference to the drapery that separates his office from the rest of ManiaTV! headquarters. But unlike the Wizard of Oz, he's a very visible presence around the building, if not in front of the multitude of fist-sized cameras set on tripods in strategic locations near the main bus and a set that uses pop-culture caricatures as a backdrop. His casual manner is echoed by his eighty or so employees, most of them well south of thirty. During a mid-July broadcast, Kruzick initiates a faceoff between two hip-hop-oriented clips, with the winner to be determined by occupants of the ManiaTV! chat room. Meanwhile, nearby crew members monitor the live feed or put together material for supplementary channels devoted to music on demand, animation, short films or viral TV, which CJ Amber Sutera describes as "all kinds of random things -- Tom Cruise getting squirted in the face, people falling down."
Massey has taken a tumble or two as well. A Fort Collins native and Boston College grad, he maxed out enough credit cards in 1995 to establish P.O.V. , a magazine he touted as the "guy's survival guide." A year later, Freedom Communications, a multi-media powerhouse that owns the Colorado Springs Gazette, among other properties, got behind P.O.V. , and its support, not to mention Massey's frankly stated ambition to build a publishing empire, raised his profile considerably. In 1996, Suck.com declared that his "business-expense hedonism, teleslick charlatanism and highly entertaining megalomania make him come off as nothing less than the miracle offspring of a Hugh Hefner-Anthony Robbins-Madonna three-way." But no amount of hype could save P.O.V. , which was overwhelmed by the rise of Maxim and other lad mags that beat Massey at his own game. Freedom pulled the plug in early 2000.
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This failure didn't discourage Massey, and neither did the difficulty he initially had funding ManiaTV! Instead of making a deal with a "small-minded" venture-capital firm whose offer he considered subpar, he reveals that "I e-mailed a few friends and said, ŒI've never asked for money before, and I'll never ask for it again. Here's an opportunity to get in on the ground floor for $25,000. Expect it to go to zero. Expect to never see it again.' And within a couple of months, I had $500,000." This total is equal to the amount it costs Massey to run ManiaTV! for a single month, but he launched anyhow, gambling that other venture capitalists would be impressed enough by what he was doing to sign up on his terms. He won the bet when Benchmark Capital, renowned for getting behind a little startup called eBay, opened its wallet. "Forbes calls Benchmark the number-one VC in the world," Massey boasts, and the connection has lured some deep-pocket advertisers to ManiaTV! Coca-Cola and Dodge are already on board, and Pepsi and Warner Bros. television will join them soon. Back in 2003, Massey told the Denver Business Journal that ManiaTV! would air traditional TV commercials, but he subsequently decided against it -- and he also rejected "banners, pop-ups and all that shit, which just piss people off" in favor of a variation on product placement. Companies are being asked to sponsor time periods during which CJs will talk up and/or display their goods. For example, it's not a coincidence that so many hosts wear Levi's (another major sponsor).
Such an approach won't work over the long term unless a lot more folks point computer mice toward the site. ManiaTV! is doing its best to spread the word via events at universities across the U.S., many of them run by freelancers Massey dubs "campus Maniacs." Locally, personnel are giving away loads of T-shirts -- some emblazoned with the slogan "Fuck Television" -- and appearing at gatherings such as the July 17 Warped Tour date, during which the network took over a restaurant near the Invesco Field concert to interview bands such as the Offspring and My Chemical Romance. But if the experiences of CJ Sutera are any indication, the ManiaTV! cult is still modest. She's the subject of a website created by a fan in Munich, Germany, yet she's only been recognized in public once to date. The experience left her mildly freaked out, she says, laughing.
Although Clemente acknowledges that he's identified a visitor number he sees as the "tipping point," he's keeping it to himself for now. Massey, however, feels certain his enterprise will be profitable by the end of 2006, despite the emergence of Internet rivals with notions similar to his -- among them MusicPlusTV.com, a Los Angeles-based service that debuted in June with programming that looks a lot like the stuff on ManiaTV! but focuses on unsigned acts rather than better-known performers. "We've got a helluva lot of work to do," he admits, if only because "it takes twenty years to deliver a revolution." Still, he knew ManiaTV! was on the right track the moment that "MTV called, wanting to invest." When asked about his response, he shrugs as he says, "We're not looking for their money."
The line between confidence and cockiness just got thinner.