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July 30 - August 5, 1998
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After two years, Channel A goes off-line
BY STACY LAVILLA
Channel A, one of the most highly touted Asian American Web sites to hit the Internet, has shut its doors, bringing a sad closure to months of speculation over whether it could survive its transformation from an online magazine specializing in Asian American issues to a shopping network specializing in Asian wares.
Last week's announcement, circulated quietly via e-mail, was the last chapter in a saga that began more than two years ago when Steven Chin left the San Francisco Examiner to create a Web site especially for Asian Americans. Visitors would log on frequently to check out snazzy features and pop culture, or to exchange views with other readers via message boards.
And when Channel A made its 1996 debut, it caught the attention not only of Asian Americans, but also industry insiders and mainstream newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, the San Jose Mercury News and USA Today, all of which praised the site for its innovation.
But the rosy times didn't last. By the beginning of this year, Channel A was letting some writers go and cutting others back. Chin himself left this winter over a difference of opinion over the site's direction, and Peggy Liu, a software product manager in Silicon Valley who also helped launch the site, took the helm as president and chief operating officer.
Liu quickly repositioned Channel A, hoping to turn it into an online store where everyone, not just Asian Americans, would feel equally welcome. Customers could learn about Asian cultures while browsing through selections ranging from Hong Kong films, books, chopsticks and tea sets.
In a March interview with AsianWeek, Liu said she was optimistic about the site's transformation. She predicted that Asian food products would do especially well.
"Surveys and sales show the common language between America and Asia is food," she said. "It's at the center of Asian culture. It's a great way for me to not only sell products, but also introduce you to Asian culture from a perspective you're interested in."
But over the next several months the concept stalled. Last week, Channel A's subscribers received a farewell e-mail from the site's managers.
"Through the two years of existence, Channel A has earned heartwarming accolades and awards, and the respect of the online community," it began. "Bringing Asian culture to the Web and being a pioneer in e-commerce has been extremely rewarding. ... We hope that you will continue to learn about the many aspects of Asian culture and build bonds with people of all backgrounds."
That news did not surprise many observers, who attributed Channel A's failure to a unproven business model, itself part of the largely unproven industry of cyber-commerce. The question of how to make money off the Internet has perplexed companies ever since there has been a World Wide Web. Some sites (most notoriously pornographic ones) have reported at least some success in turning a profit. Still, many more fail.
Angelo Ragaza, editor-in-chief of A Magazine, said Channel A had yet to determine the right formula for economic success when it ran out of time. "They aren't the first online editorial venture that started with a lot of hype and then folded. I think the revenue model is not flawed, but no one has reliable revenue models for online editorial products," Ragaza said.
"It is partially the nature of it ... I think what's happened is a lot of people jumped into the online publishing front, and it's still such an untested and yet to be proven arena."
Chin, who is now involved in other Web projects, speculated that the site was not moving enough merchandise to stay afloat. "You have to sell a lot of products to maintain a company, and they obviously weren't selling enough."
He called the site's online-store concept "a little early for its time." As he explained, "The type of audience they wanted to attract-people interested in Asian lifestyle products--were not online buying and shopping yet."
Ragaza said Channel A's departure creates a void, but given the site's own evolution, he's not sure what it is.
"Yes there is a void, but it's a little bit ... it's hard to say exactly what it is, that is, hard to define," Ragaza said.
Officials at Channel A were reluctant to comment at length. They did say they have received a steady stream of e-mail from fans who were saddened by the site's departure.
"We worked really hard on this site, and we wanted it to work," said Director of Marketing Margaret Ng. She emphasized that the staff, to the end, continually devoted itself toward creating a Web site that all people could turn to for an accurate depiction of Asian culture.
"Channel A really wanted this to be a place that people could learn about Asian culture accurately, whether they were Asian or non-Asian," she said. "We all wanted it to be that site."
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