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Let me get this straight, you intend to use a PIII machine as your media server?
The biggest performance things have always been CPU speed and RAM. You can play all you want and in fact you can configure and build a kernel to boot very fast. However you'll likely need current kernel software because you'll have to have drivers which will load and run vlc. Vlc is great, but like many multimedia packages, it requires a lot of associated libraries, and further, the media you intend to run may require newer codecs. Therefore you'll need something which is current, and can be updated. This is where the PIII comes into my concern, because you may have to settle for an older kernel to run best or at all on that platform, meanwhile you'd be trying to play and stream latest technology data through the system. I do see that you say you don't require codecs, but that's because you've so bounded the needs/requirements. OK fine. Download an old version of Debian. Make LILO or GRUB boot fast, play with the BIOS settings to turn off all tests and boot fast. Consider rebuilding the kernel from source so you can configure out all the fluff that you don't need. Actually, not running X will probably get you booted within 10 seconds anyways.
Why not go for a Pi or Gumstix instead? There's actually plenty of examples of people making media servers out of Pi's.
If you are looking for a stripped down distro, then you are looking at Puppy. A bit of reading on either puppylinux.org or puppylinux.com will tell you that the various puppys are based on larger distros that have been stripped down. Warry, Racy, and Lucid versions of Puppy are based on Ubuntu. There is also Slackopuppy that is based on Slackware. I don't think that it is the distro that is making your system slow to boot. It may be the system's boot device. Remember that Puppy want's to completely load into a RAM disk before it boots. Maybe put Puppy into an SD memory card and use a SD to IDE adaptor, since I doubt that Pentium III has a SATA interface.
If you want to build up your own distro, look into Arch or Core linux. Core in intresting. It just gives you enough to boot the machine and give you a command prompt (terminal window). You gota build it up from there. I don't necessarily reccomend that approach to a beginner.