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iVillage Sniffs out Subscription Fees

And now, it's free Web portal iVillage's turn to look for ways to get its loyal base of users to start paying.

Although most of the services on the network of sites under the iVillage roof still remain supported by advertising, the company has begun a survey of its readers to test whether they might be willing to pony up a monthly subscription fee for added services.

And already, readers have been hitting the site's message boards saying they would rather not have to pay to post messages, or for other services.

Carl Fischer, an iVillage spokesman, explained that the company's chief executive Doug McCormick has always talked about moving to a "platinum" service, such as a separate area offering fee-based content.

"It wouldn't be taking anything away from" iVillage's free offerings, he said. Instead, it would be adding another subscription based iVillage package. But right now, the company is still collecting feedback on the idea.

Other than detailed horoscope reports and a detailed IQ test in another section, most of services on iVillage remain free, including extensive streaming radio programming and advice programs on a number of topics such as sex and child rearing.

The women-focused site is also offering its first-ever online course to users called "Awaken your sexual self." Taught by sex therapist Dr. Patti Britton, who also appears on the iVillage's streaming radio programs, the six-week seminar is priced at $34.95. Depending on how the sex course sells, the company could offer other online conferences, a spokesman said.

With millions of visitors coming to the site each month, and its losses still mounting, iVillage has been hunkering down in order to show a pre-tax profit in the fourth quarter.

As a result, it's likely that the firm will consider following the route established by several other content players, who are looking to supplement dwindling advertising revenue with fees.

Salon.com, for instance, has seen some success in charging for access to certain areas of its sites. During its most recent quarter, the San Francsco-based firm brought in 31 percent of its revenue from subscriptions, helping to offset a more than 50 percent drop in ad income from the previous year.

Dow Jones & Co.'s WSJ.com also recently added new personalization and content features to its site. Executives at the company have said the additions would boost subscribers and, potentially, could justify a rate increase later this year.

The news comes shortly after six-year-old iVillage's recent completion of its merger with Women.com, a transaction that included a $20 million investment from Hearst Communications. Hearst now owns 30 percent of iVillage.

Following that merger, iVillage was forced to cut staff at offices in San Mateo, CA and New York. Those cuts were aimed at eliminating merger-related overlaps.

Last year, the media company acquired the Business Women's Network (BWN) destinations. It also owns Lamaze Publishing, The Newborn Channel, iVillage Solutions and Astrology.com.

It has said it expects fourth quarter 2001 revenues to be flat to down 10 percent from third quarter 2001 revenues when it releases its year-end results next month.