Goodbye Kitty

CueCat was a little like a mule with a spinning wheel--so says Dallas' own Lyle Lanley

In case you're wondering--and lots of stockholders/employees at Belo Corp. are--there were plenty of people who knew the CueCat was a ridiculous investment. Mark Cuban said as much. Newsroom grunts who were asked to evaluate its worth said, in the kindest terms possible, that the digital scanner cat-lookin' thingie was, in the parlance of the high-tech industry, retarded.

It didn't matter. The brain trust at Belo dumped nearly $40 million into the kitty last year, with promises that the investment wasn't so much a gamble as it was a money-making lock. A sure thing.

Well, we all know about sure bets in hindsight, don't we? If you're a poorly compensated media columnist, the Sixers plus-6 1/2 at home to the Lakers looked like a big payday. (Note to bookie: My paycheck arrives this week; I'll call.) If you're a big stupid corporation, you don't put your coin on a ballgame, you bet your wad on a cumbersome computer widget that rarely works and when it does takes people to Web pages they have no interest in seeing. Then, about a year later, you write off your investment because the company that produces the CueCat, Dallas' own Digital Convergence, lays off most of its 225 workers. And because no one used the damn thing.

"The end of Digital Convergence, when it comes," wrote David Coursey, executive editor of zdnet.com's influential "AnchorDesk" site, "will prove that fools--investors who thought this nonsense was worth investing in--and their money soon go different ways. And it will restore the universe to balance and harmony: There will be one fewer solution out there looking for a problem."

Granted, Coursey used to work for the Dallas Times Herald, so bias could be alleged, except that most everyone within the non-Belo press shared his opinion. (WFAA-Channel 8, on the other hand, still hasn't apologized for its whorish three-day report on the CueCat's debut.)

Surely, then, someone's head is rolling over this feline fiasco.

Nope. Everyone at the Belo Death Star is trying hard to pretend it never happened. The suits, the butt-kissers, the bean counters, the grunts--everyone wants to get back to the company's core business: concentrating on "sustainable, incremental revenue."

Why no head on no platter? Because the man most probably responsible for this answers to no one. He is Belo. He is the chairman of the board. He is Robert W. Decherd. He is simply, as he prefers to be called, "Bobby D."

It was Bobby D., recall, who personally presented the CueCat to the staff, who let the cat out of the bag, as it were. (Sorry. The cat puns...they're addictive.) This suggested to longtime staffers that it was he--not then-publisher Burl Osborne, not king of corporate convergence Jack Sander--who was shepherding this project.

Which makes sense. How else could they have chunked so much cash into such a ridiculous project? The only way that happens is if someone very high up, perhaps the highest-up himself, announces that his news-gathering company is getting into the bar-code scanner business--don't question me, you toadies--next item on the meeting agenda, please.

OK, so that tells you how the company was bamboozled. But how was Bobby D. duped?

Three words: the music man.

You've seen that movie, right? From 1962? The one starring Robert Preston as Harold Hill, a con man who beguiles a small Midwestern town, not to mention Shirley Jones?

Neither have I. But I have seen the parody of it on The Simpsons. In it, Lyle Lanley is the fast-talking, piano-playing salesman in the straw hat and seersucker suit. He convinces Springfield to spend its new $3 million windfall (courtesy of a fine to Mr. Burns for storing nuclear waste in park trees) on a monorail. He does so by singing a catchy song, wooing the crowd with his élan:

"Well, sir, there's nothing on Earth like a gen-u-ine, bona fide, electrified six-car monorail!"

Dallas has one of those, you know. Not a monorail. A Lyle Lanley. He goes by an equally cartoonish name: J. Jovan Philyaw.

You remember Jovan--the man, not the scent. He helped market Tripledge Wipers. He did the sales song-and-dance for Internet America. He was the longtime host and executive producer for the local TV show Net Talk Live!, in which lonely people would call in to Jovan and his technical advisers asking for help in downloading Netscape beta 5.0 or somesuch. He founded Digital Convergence in 1998. He is, according to his subdued bio, "a luminary figure in the world of direct marketing."

Here's what Jovan did. With the help of a techie co-worker, he created the CueCat. Then he did what he does best: He convinced other people to buy into his dream.

You can imagine the meeting. Jovan--teeth freshly sandblasted, hair smelling of success--playing the piano, whipping the Belo board and Bobby D. into a check-writing frenzy.

"Well, sirs, there's nothing on Earth like a gen-u-ine, feline, doubly fine, balls o' twine, online, Dallas-datelined, love-it-in-Grapevine, somewhat asinine CueCat!"

Bobby D. and the boys, scared that they might be missing out on The Next Big Thing, ponied up. Now, months later, they are financially strapped, a pecuniary condition that is in itself excusable. All news outlets are bleeding, including this corporation.

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