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Web vets bet online video is ready for a TV takeover

May 19, 2010 |  6:30 pm

Jason Calacanis is a betting man.

The poker enthusiast gambled that blogging would break out when he founded Weblogs Inc. in 2003. He was right on the money and cashed out in a sale to AOL for $25 million.

As he wages an ongoing battle against Google with his people-powered search engine Mahalo, the Los Angeles entrepreneur is throwing his chips down on a new venture. On Wednesday, Calacanis and a pair of Internet execs announced investments totaling $300,000 in ThisWeekIn, an episodic video network that was established in January.

Using a studio at Mahalo's Santa Monica office, Mark Jeffrey, former Mahalo chief technology officer, oversees daily operations as ThisWeekIn chief executive. L.A. Internet personalities host 10 shows on the network, which Jeffrey plans to increase to at least 30 in the first two years.

Viewers can watch the mostly-hour-plus programs live online or download them later on the site, through an iTunes podcast subscription, on YouTube or using a set-top box connected to a television such as the Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Boxee.

The Internet-enabled TV, or "smart TV," market is expected to balloon in the next year or so. Google, Intel and Sony are expected to announce a partnership on a new Web TV platform soon, and Best Buy recently launched its own online video service.

Calacanis hosts a show called "This Week in Startups," in which he profiles budding Web companies, and garners about 100,000 viewers a week. Revenue comes from "integrated ads" in the style of old-time radio, where the hosts read advertisements or demonstrate products.

"I knew Weblogs Inc. was not my best idea ever," Calacanis said last year in an interview after taping an episode of "This Week in Startups," which drew a large crowd to a restaurant in Santa Monica.

Still, he's convinced podcasting will catch on the same way blogging did.

"I think everybody is going to have their own podcast," Calacanis said in a phone interview with The Times on Tuesday. "They'll do a show to update their friends on what they're doing."

"When I said everybody is going to have their own blog in 2004, they thought I was insane," he added.

Calacanis has already managed to convince some notable people that the video network is a worthy business. His co-founder is Kevin Pollak, the actor and comedian who starred in "The Usual Suspects" and "A Few Good Men" and briefly hosted the Bravo show "Celebrity Poker Showdown."

Kevin-pollak Pollak met Calacanis at a poker game hosted by a mutual friend. As is the case for many people when first encountering the brash, Brooklyn native, Pollak "loathed" Calacanis, he said on the phone from a movie shoot in Vancouver.

Calacanis attempted to psych out the actor during the game, saying, as Pollak recalled, "So, you really kind of peaked in the '90s, right? You don't really work any more."

"I remember leaving that night and saying, 'I can't wait to talk to my friends who invited me to that game and tell them if you ever invite me to a game and that son of a bitch is there, don't bother,' " Pollak said

A later meeting with Calacanis was more cordial. Pollak's friend had explained that Calacanis is a shark at the poker table and often resorts to the out-of-work dig on celebrities. Pollak was given a tour of Calacanis' office building, eventually stopping at the future home of the ThisWeekIn studio.

"I walked into the studio space, and I was in it maybe a minute before I said, I'm going to do a Charlie Rose show with a sense of humor," Pollak said. And so the "Kevin Pollak Chat Show" was born.

Guests have included Kevin SmithAdam Carolla and Dana Carvey. Pollak has been talking to some of his celebrity friends about hosting their own shows. Yet despite his star appeal, Pollak's Web series hasn't quite outpaced Calacanis' tech show, with about 100,000 downloads per episode.

"They throw stuff with the 'This Week In' [label] and get an instant tech audience, which is fantastic," Pollak said. "And I yell at them that it looks like [expletive], and they don't care."

Whereas Calacanis and Jeffrey bring the technology knowhow, Pollak plans to boost the network's production quality.

They have some catching up to do. Revision3, a product of several San Francisco Web developers, has been shooting tech-focused Internet shows since 2005. The network made a tongue-in-cheek play for Conan O'Brien after NBC gave him the boot, and announced on Wednesday that Penn Jillette of the magic act Penn & Teller would host a program on Revision3.

Veteran broadcaster Leo Laporte has been producing a show called "This Week in Tech" for five years, which Calacanis has appeared on many times (as have I). Laporte has since expanded the Petaluma, Calif., operation to a TWiT network of nearly two dozen shows. They all broadcast live video, and the company pulls in more than $1 million in revenue a year.

Calacanis' new company seems to overlap in name with Laporte's, which has five programs whose titles start with "This Week In," including its flagship. Calacanis assures us that Laporte has privately sanctioned the new ThisWeekIn, which was reiterated by Laporte during one "This Week in Tech" broadcast.

"TWiT has been streaming live video on the Internet for two years," Laporte wrote in an e-mail. "In fact, I bet my future on Internet broadcasting. Having someone as successful as Jason venture into this field shows that the mainstream is finally starting to catch on."

Whereas Laporte appears mostly focused on catering to a tech-obsessed audience, according to Calacanis the two won't butt heads because ThisWeekIn will soon expand to more mainstream topics. Currently, "This Week in iPad" is the network's most popular show, with 140,000 downloads per episode.

"I think any Internet venture sort of starts with the early adopters," Calacanis said. "What we found with Weblogs is that that's not where the money is or the audience."

ThisWeekIn CEO Jeffrey says he had wanted to start an online video network when Laporte and Revision3 launched. But he thought the pool was too shallow then to take the dive. "There's a lot of craters and a lot of dead bodies in this space," he said.

Virgin America includes Revision3 programs as part of its in-flight entertainment system, and most major TV manufacturers have begun making Internet-enabled TV sets or have announced plans to do so. The days of flipping through a couple hundred cable channels aren't necessarily numbered, but couch potatoes will be able to flip over to a much broader range of content on the Web.

"Once they build it into every new television, then it's going to be as available as all the television channels," said Pollak, who brings with him decades of experience in the fortress of traditional media. "The Internet is coming to television."

-- Mark Milian
twitter.com/markmilian

Photos, from top: Jason Calacanis never goes anywhere without his video and still cameras, and his laptop and hand-held computers; actor Kevin Pollak hosts his own talk show on ThisWeekIn. Credits, from top: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times; Warner Bros.

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