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ZillionTV gets a new CEO

October 20, 2009 |  6:53 pm

ZillionTV logo TV-over-the-Internet start-up ZillionTV changed its leadership today, bringing in a new chief executive to take over for Mitch Berman. The new guy is Jack Lawrence, formerly head of North American operations for Hong Kong toy maker Corgi International. Berman is staying on as executive chairman, he said in an interview.

Start-ups frequently change CEOs in mid-stream, often because the person with the original vision isn't the one with the managerial chops to make it happen. Those are two different skills, after all. But the change at Zillion of Sunnyvale, Calif., is sure to raise eyebrows because of extensive recent layoffs that had one former-employee-turned-blogger suggesting that the company was on its last legs. (The blogger, Brandon Wirtz, offered a similarly dismal spin on the news about Lawrence.)

Berman said the switch in roles was his idea. He wanted to hand the reins to Lawrence -- a longtime veteran of the satellite, cable TV and telecommunications industry -- because the "constant running around and raising money" had been taking too great a toll on his quality of life and his company's momentum. Lawrence will take over the fundraising duties, leaving Berman to strike the deals with content providers, advertisers and commercial partners that are crucial to Zillion's survival.

Unfortunately, Zillion isn't disclosing much to reassure people about its prospects, at least not yet. Berman wouldn't say how much money the company had raised (although Multichannel News reported that Zillion had collected more than $18 million by the end of last year), who its distribution partners were, how many titles it had in its library or what content deals it had signed (granted, the company counts five Hollywood studios among its investors). As for the layoffs, Berman said the company has morphed from a technology developer into a media and marketing operation, and so there was no work left for some employees to do.

He said more confidence-building announcements were soon to come. The company launched last month in communities where it doesn't have an ISP partner, offering the service to anyone who agrees to pay the one-time equipment fee of $99. But Berman wouldn't say where those were, nor did he disclose how many customers had signed up. So there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical about Zillion. Nevertheless, I'm paying attention to the company because I'm intrigued by its business model. Offering a subscription-free twist on online video-on-demand, Zillion says its customers will be able to buy, rent or watch movie and TV programming for free in exchange for viewing personalized commercials. It's not exactly a replacement for cable TV, nor is it a gateway to all the video riches the Web has to offer. And the most innovative aspect of the business model -- free viewing with targeted ads -- still has to be proven before Zillion is likely to get the studios' most compelling content. Yet its user interface is great, and the picture quality it demonstrated this year was impressive. So stay tuned.

-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.