It was a year ago Wednesday that America Online Inc., suffering from increasing competition and a steep decline in its stock price, decided to split into three parts.

There was the online service, which has undergone a remarkable rebound and now claims more than 9 million subscribers. There was the network services division, which recently was sold to WorldCom Inc., the fast-growing telephone company.

And then there was AOL Studios, which has spent the last year quietly squirreled away in the company's old Vienna offices, charged with developing cyberspace "content."

Today AOL plans to lift the shroud of secrecy around the studios division and unveil its first original product: a splashy online site about the entertainment industry that will be available on both AOL and the World Wide Web. The site, called Entertainment Asylum and developed at an AOL "studio" in Hollywood, the site will feature news and reviews about movies, television shows and music as well as celebrity gossip, chat rooms and online games.

The site represents a new effort by AOL to use its expertise in developing online content to create material for not just its own proprietary service but the Web in general. In doing so, the company gets to tap into a much larger electronic community, which it hopes will lead to more revenue from advertising and marketing deals on the site.

"This is an opportunity for AOL to truly diversify," Ted Leonsis, the president of the AOL Studios division, said as he showed off the site to a reporter last week. "Now we can go after 100 percent of the market."

One version of the site will reside in a prime area of AOL's "entertainment channel." Its graphics won't be as sophisticated as its Web counterpart, but it will be accessible to the legions of AOL users who don't have fast computer modems.

The more graphics-intensive Web version (http://www.asylum.com) also should get prominent exposure, even on the sprawling Internet: It will be highlighted on the latest Web browsers made by Microsoft Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp. Some of the site's content also could wind up on radio shows and cable television, under other deals AOL is trying to make.

AOL executives say they don't worry that sites like Entertainment Asylum will steal customers from the online service. "People like AOL because it's easy to use," said Bob Pittman, the president of AOL's online service division. "Just because some of our content is also available on the Web doesn't mean people are going to give us up for {direct Internet} connections."

It's a business model that is thus far unproven in cyberspace. In fact, there are few Web sites that have turned a profit, despite multimillion-dollar investments.

But financial analysts think it's an idea worth trying. "I think they're looking at the model you have with Disney and ABC," said Paul Noglows, an analyst with Hambrecht & Quist in San Francisco. "While Disney owns the network, they still create television shows and movies for other networks. It's a very grown-up view from AOL."

The AOL Studios division is largely funded by AOL, although certain projects have been co-funded by outside investors. AOL hasn't disclosed its investment in the division or the cost of developing Entertainment Asylum, but Leonsis said the total investment in the site will be $10 million to $15 million over two years.

The site has lined up some large advertisers and marketing partners, including Columbia House, Godiva Chocolatiers and FreeShop International. Under the two-year, "multimillion" deal with Columbia House, users of the site will be offered memberships in the company's music and video clubs, Leonsis said.

Development of the site originally was headed by the late Brandon Tartikoff, the NBC television programming whiz. From March until a few weeks before his death in August, Tartikoff served as the project's chairman, using his contacts in the entertainment industry to make the site into an A-list project.

"He could get on the phone and call a senior vice president at ABC," Leonsis said. "He opened a lot of doors for us."

After Tartikoff got things rolling, the project grew to more than 60 employees working out of a Hollywood building that AOL likes to call a "cyberstudio," replete with computers and video cameras. The site will be "premiered" there tomorrow night at a star-laden party.

The site will have a heavy multimedia focus, with audio and video clips of new movie and music releases. It will have footage commonly seen on shows such as "Entertainment Tonight," as well as live interviews with celebrities whom users can quiz via e-mail.

The site also will have a five-member "screen team," a group of young, attractive and hip correspondents who will show up at premieres, parties and other events. They'll share personal accounts of those events, through written reviews and video clips, with users.

"We want them to be a part of the action," said Scott Zakarian, the site's president of programming and the founder of "The Spot," the Web's first online soap opera. "We're trying to break new ground here."

The service also will boast more practical content, such as movie reviews and television listings.

Although industry analysts who have seen the site in its early stages laud its innovativeness, they warn that it will have more than its share of competition from dozens of other Web sites that cover the entertainment world, including those run by fan clubs, movie studios, TV networks and newspapers.

"It's a good-looking site, but it's not a sure-fire winner," said Seema Williams, an analyst with Forrester Research, a consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. Nevertheless, with distribution on AOL and the Web, "it's going to be pretty good exposure," she said.

And that's crucial for AOL, which wants its cyberstudio to create lucrative blockbusters for the digital world. And like a movie studio, AOL aims to keep churning out Web sites. Later this fall, the company will release Web versions of its Digital City service on AOL, which provides news, weather, sports and entertainment information for large U.S. cities. The company is planning a holiday-themed site that will be tied into a Christmas television special on ABC.

"Three years from now, we're hoping Studios will be as strategic to AOL as {the online service}," Leonsis said. "That's the goal. That's the dream. That's the bet." CAPTION: TED LEONSIS