Nine million users strong, and still America Online gets about as much respect as Rodney Dangerfield. Hugely successful precisely because it’s so unthreatening, the online service lacks the wild and woolly individualism that makes the Web such an ongoing story. But with the Oct. 27 debut of Entertainment Asylum, an ambitious new area that exists on AOL (keyword: Asylum) and as a free stand-alone site (www.asylum.com), the company is trying to bring in some Hollywood flash while reaching out beyond its digital picket fence to the Internet unwashed.
On the early evidence, it may get its hand slapped. (Full-disclosure note: Next month this magazine will be relaunching its own expanded entertainment-news site — EW Online.) Entertainment Asylum aims to marry the celeb-centered features of TV newsmagazines like Entertainment Tonight with more useful gadgets like customizable TV schedules and movie listings. Focusing on the big and small screens for now (a music area will soon be introduced), Asylum divvies the landscape up by genre: During the first week, for example, the Comedy Clinic offered a feature on the animated South Park, while the Sci-Fi Zone profiled The X-Files’ Chris Carter and the just-released movie Starship Troopers.
Loaded with nifty animations, streaming-video interviews with the likes of Richard Gere, and Java-based celeb chats (Troopers director Paul Verhoeven, for instance), the Web-based Asylum is a dazzling online experience — at first. But while a few areas have a strong editorial sense (the Pulp/Cult/Horror Highway features a smart take on L.A. Confidential writer James Ellroy), much of the writing is warmed-over promo puff (a Red Corner feature in the Drama Den) and some is downright shoddy (the entire Sci-Fi Zone, for instance, is space junk). You can also find a lot of this stuff elsewhere on the Web: The Hollywood Wire is mostly unfiltered Reuters, the TV listings come from the Gist, and Digital City supplies the movie show times.
To its credit, Asylum puts it all in one big, easily accessible feed bag. On the debit side, it adds the Screen Team — six shiny, happy hosts who seem so much like online veejays that two of them (Downtown Julie Brown and Roger Rose) actually were. Head Teamer Laurie Plaksin, former actress/writer/pinup on the Web soap The Spot, describes her group as ”only too thrilled to share our personal baggage. Some call it personality.” True. And some call it narcissism.
If Asylum can toughen up its writing quality in the coming months — for example, make the TV-show synopses read as if they weren’t cut and pasted from network PR releases — it may stand a chance against already robust rivals like E! Online and Mr. Showbiz. For now, it’s very pretty junk food when accessed via the Web — and a cluttered, counterintuitive mess when seen on AOL. Irony of ironies, the service has created a site that may well work best if you’re not a subscriber. C+
‘FLEET’ LANDS ON ITS FEET
It may be autumn, but it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmastime on the multimedia best-seller list. Two long-awaited titles, Star Trek: Starfleet Academy and fantasy/strategy sim Dark Reign: The Future of War, hit the PC games’ top 5 this month, signaling the arrival of the industry’s fourth-quarter shopping season.
TOP 20 CD-ROMS LAST MONTH
1 MICROSOFT WINDOWS 95 UPGRADE Microsoft, PC 1 2 MICROSOFT FLIGHT SIMULATOR Microsoft, PC 14 3 MYST Broderbund, PC and Mac 4 4 VIRUSCAN McAfee, PC 5 5 UNINSTALLER Cybermedia, PC 12 6 NORTON UTILITIES Symantec, PC and Mac 3 7 PRINTMASTER GOLD DELUXE PUBLISHER SUITE Mindscape, PC 8 8 STAR TREK: STARFLEET ACADEMY Interplay, PC and Mac – 9 MAC OS 8 Apple, Mac 2 10 NETSCAPE COMMUNICATOR Netscape, PC – 11 PRINT SHOP PREMIER EDITION Broderbund, PC – 12 DARK REIGN: THE FUTURE OF WAR Activision, PC – 13 DIABLO CUC Software, PC 9 14 NORTON ANTIVIRUS Symantec, PC 10 15 PRINT SHOP PUBLISHING SUITE Broderbund, PC – 16 READING RABBIT KINDERGARTEN Learning Company, PC – 17 SESAME STREET TODDLER DELUXE Creative Wonders, PC – 18 SESAME STREET ELMO’S PRESCHOOL DELUXE Creative Wonders, PC – 19 JUMPSTART FIRST GRADE CUC Software, PC 6 20 MICROSOFT OFFICE PRO 97 Microsoft, PC –
TOP 5 PC GAMES
1 MICROSOFT FLIGHT SIMULATOR Microsoft 4 2 MYST Broderbund 1 3 STAR TREK: STARFLEET ACADEMY Interplay – 4 DARK REIGN: THE FUTURE OF WAR Activision – 5 DIABLO CUC Software 2
TOP 5 MACINTOSH GAMES
1 CIVILIZATION 2 MicroProse 3 2 QUAKE GT Interactive 6 3 MAC CUBE Aztech New Media 7 4 DUKE NUKEM 3-D ATOMIC GT Interactive 1 5 MYST Broderbund 4
TOP 5 REFERENCE
1 MICROSOFT ENCARTA DELUXE Microsoft 1 2 GROLIER ENCYCLOPEDIA DELUXE ‘98 Grolier – 3 COLLIER’S ENCYCLOPEDIA ‘98 CUC Software – 4 MICROSOFT BOOKSHELF Microsoft 2 5 MICROSOFT ENCARTA Microsoft –
SOURCE: PC DATA