Not sure about this, but I think we may be witnessing the emergence of a whole new trend on Wall Street. Call it the journalist-as-shill for a dot-com stock promotion.
It was back in late March when we
caught the first whiff of the trend. That was when a group of brokers from New Jersey who'd been publishing a mimeographed Wall Street tip sheet known as
moved their operation to the Internet, chucked the business inside a defunct penny-stock shell, slapped ".com" on the name and hired onetime financial columnist
to prettify the whole thing up with daily Web-based commentary for daytraders. As a result of all that, the company in question --
-- is now selling for close to 10 a share, up from less than 60 cents back in March.
Now a second Web outfit has cashed in on the same basic gimmick. The only difference: Instead of using Dan Dorfman to goose up the stock, the punch line this time turns out to be
, the badly tarnished ex-foreign correspondent for
Three months ago, the company in question -- New York-based
-- was nothing more than a lot of fast talk and grand promises by a New York PR man, Jonathan Braun, and his sidekick, TV guy Al Primo, the oft-mentioned creator of the "eyewitness news" format. Yet thanks at least in part to Arnett's involvement, things are looking up.
For starters, an IPO filed back in February as a so-called best-efforts offering by an obscure brokerage firm named
has now been sold out. That has given ForeignTV.com a bit more than $9 million of cash funds, whereas three months earlier it had
. Better still, Primo and Braun also now possess the sine qua non of late-90s dealsters: a publicly traded
stock, which looks set to begin trading at somewhere north of 6 per share any day now. That would give the company a fully diluted market capitalization of more than $60 million, whereas three months earlier its total balance-sheet worth was $83,000.
It must please Arnett to no end to know that, at least on Wall Street, he's a $70 million man -- though assuredly not much of that money will wind up ever sticking to him personally. And the marquee value of his name must have a particularly sweet taste for Arnett, considering just how little his former employers at
seem to have valued it.
In case you've forgotten, it was back in June 1998 when Arnett -- already largely eclipsed by the gutsy Christiane Amanpour as
best-known (and best) foreign correspondent -- aired a story for the cable network accusing the U.S. military of using nerve gas on civilians in Laos during the Vietnam War.
The story was carried by
magazine -- both are owned by
-- as the curtain-raiser to a new show,
NewsStand: CNN & Time
, designed to exploit the presumed editorial synergies between
. Based on what
later acknowledged to be inconclusive and sloppy reporting, the show brought a storm of outrage and eventual retractions and apologies from the cable network.
Two producers of the story were fired, but Arnett, who did the on-air "standup" for the story, escaped with only a reprimand after claiming that he hadn't done or checked the accuracy of any of the reporting for his story. Who then had? Arnett put the blame on subordinates while sidestepping the question of whether, by his own involvement in the story, he led
viewers to believe it was all his own work.
In no time at all, Arnett disappeared from the screen, and by this past April he left the company entirely. Fortunately, he landed on his feet -- albeit more than a rung or two down the news ladder -- and was quickly courted by Braun and Primo at ForeignTV.com.
What exactly Arnett will do at ForeignTV.com -- or indeed what anyone will do at the company -- remains a bit unsettled. The original idea seemed to have been for Pete to traverse the earth setting up ForeignTV.com bureaus. But according to Braun, the idea now seems to be for him to fly all over the place interviewing "world leaders."
What ForeignTV.com will do with these interviews is something of a mystery, as is the whole concept of the company itself. As best I can make out from reading the IPO registration statement and from interviewing Braun, the idea seems to be for ForeignTV.com to become a kind of TV network on the Internet, focusing not on American news and culture but rather on news and culture everywhere but America.
Maybe there really are millions of people just dying to see a hausfrau bag her own groceries in Schweinfurt, Germany, or watch a tourist pick the flies from a plate of couscous in Djerba, Tunisia.
Right away this idea has problems. As any newsperson will tell you, Americans just aren't all that interested in foreign news anymore. And subject matter is not the only problem with ForeignTV.com's business plan. There's also the question of how all this material that nobody is interested in will be assembled for presentation on the Web -- not simply as text reports, mind you, but as digital movies known as streaming video.
Who exactly is going to shoot all that video? And with what? According to Braun, ForeignTV.com is already in the process of signing up a whole army of twentysomething "Internut" stringers, who will soon be running all over the place with digital cameras, shooting video footage of whatever strikes their fancy, then emailing the results back to New York, where they'll be posted on the company's Web site.
Sound a little chaotic to you? To me it sounds like a way to waste nearly $10 million on putting together the world's largest collection of random home movies. But, look, what do I know? I'm the guy who told you that
would never fly. That was three years ago, when the company went public at 13 per share. Today Yahoo! is not only profitable but selling for the split-adjusted equivalent of more than 900 per share.
So maybe there really is an untapped market for a Web-based smorgasbord of whatever it is that stirs the souls of the young in Bessarabia. Maybe there really are millions of people just dying to see a hausfrau bag her own groceries in Schweinfurt, Germany, or watch a tourist pick the flies from a plate of couscous in Djerba, Tunisia.
On the other hand, I really doubt there's much desire among viewers to behold Arnett putting the Big Question to
in Havana -- just as I doubt that Castro will be eager to answer it when he learns that the only people he'll be reaching are postpubescent cybernerds who think the best thing in life is an endless supply of pizza slices and back issues of
Meanwhile, there's the business itself to gear up and get running. And because the company to date has devoted itself entirely to promoting the IPO, not a whole lot has yet been learned about the business it hopes to conduct. The IPO registration statement says, for example, that the company intends to establish an unspecified number of "location-specific" bureaus in various foreign countries, and to staff them with "reporters, anchors, producers" at a rate of four to five "reporters/anchors" per bureau. (Braun now says they may employ fewer staff members per bureau.)
The company has budgeted $4 million to $5 million -- that is, roughly half the proceeds of the IPO -- to cover these costs for the first 18 months. But if the average salary is a modest $30,000 per employee (trivial by current Internet standards) and if fringe benefits like health insurance and workers' comp add another $30,000 (such fringe benefits often run much higher in Europe), then salary costs alone could devour up to $300,000 in the very first bureau the company opens. And that's for people with basically no experience at all in Internet technologies or the news media.
My own belief is that they'll have to hire at least a cadre of skilled professionals able to supply acceptable programming or else no one will visit the Web site at all. The company expects to earn nearly all its revenue from advertising and e-commerce, but who's going to advertise on the site if it has no visitors? Right now the site is ridiculous, consisting of baffling random snippets from Blondie concerts and photos of someone frowning. Why not save a lot of trouble and just run nonstop footage from an ATM surveillance camera in Penn Station?
Once the company is faced with the need to bring in real talent, payroll and administrative costs will soar, eating up nearly all the proceeds of the IPO before the first operating cost is incurred at all. There will be broadband charges, server costs, software development expenses. Financially speaking, ForeignTV.com is entering a land war in Asia, and judging from the prospectus, they don't even know it.
It would be nice to think that at least somebody will be making a killing from this deal, but the whole thing seems so cheesy and small beer as to be downright embarrassing even to mention. The principals in the deal -- Jonathan and Al -- hold the bulk of the stock, for which they paid 1 cent per share in pre-IPO funding. They can't cash out for at least 180 days, and by that time the stock might be worth nothing. Meanwhile, they've got a deal going whereby they went out beforehand and set up a bunch of Web site names that end with "TV" and have now licensed them to the company for $158,000 a year.
In reality, the only people who stand to lose big are the mainly retail investors to whom Westminster Securities sold the deal at 6 per share. But who knows, a year from now it might be selling for 90 and ForeignTV.com might be the hottest thing on the Web. Frankly, I hope that happens -- a happy ending for (almost) everyone. Think of the headlines: "Penny-Stock Garbage Buries TV" ... "Peter Arnett Now Whippets Face in Digisphere, Gets Date With Jenny McCarthy" ... "Eyewitness News Guy Gets Table at '21,' Pal Gets CBS" ... "Karmazin Out, Unfurls Own Web Site Plan for Big Comeback." Cool stuff or what?!
Christopher Byron's column appears in the New York Observer, and he also writes a Wall Street and investing column for Playboy. He is the former assistant managing editor for Forbes, the Wall Street correspondent for Time and the Bottom Line columnist for New York. Byron holds no positions in any of the stocks discussed in his column. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he welcomes your feedback at