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TV on the Net

TV on the Net — Two new websites are modeling themselves after the big networks

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”It’s like working for another imaginary network,” SCTV alumnus Dave Thomas jokes about American Cybercast (http://www.amcy.com), one of two brand-new ”networks” that recently debuted on the Web (the other, First-TV, can be found at http://www.first-tv.com). Emulating old-fashioned networks such as NBC and Fox, the two sites are seeking to make a mainstream-entertainment splash: American Cybercast with daily shows by the likes of Thomas, actress Kathy Najimy, actor-performance artist Spalding Gray, and Jonathan Katz of Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist; First-TV with short original films by dozens of independent filmmakers (including one by Eric Howell, who’s worked on F/X for films including Untamed Heart and The Mighty Ducks).

American Cybercast produces the popular Web soap The Spot, as well as two other Internet-based serials: the sci-fi adventure Eon-4 and a new Silicon Valley-based potboiler, The Pyramid. Visitors to the site can jump to any of these shows. In turn, E! veteran (and Talk Soup creator) Debbie Myers, American Cybercast’s production VP, hopes they’ll be enticed to return on a regular basis by such fare as Quick Fix Theater — breezy, byte-size original programming including Thomas’ weekly The Paranoid, in which the comic declaims on wacky conspiracy theories. ”I thought it would be important to do something that works on the Web now,” Thomas says. ”A lot of people in offices don’t have sound, and a lot of people at home don’t have fast modems.” (To avoid such limitations, The Paranoid uses a combination of stills, audio, and animation rather than full-motion video.) At least Thomas is passingly familiar with the technology. Admits Gray, who hosts a weekly Q&A forum, Gray Matters, ”This is real foreign territory to me. I’m an unconscious Luddite: Get me to a machine, and it breaks down.”

Since it can’t offer TV-quality video, and since it’s just one of about 5 million ”channels,” or sites, on the World Wide Web, American Cybercast qualifies as a network only in the loosest sense of the word. ”It’s one of the Web flavors du jour,” says Ted Pine, president of the research firm InfoTech. ”Last year people were talking about content-based websites, and this year they’re talking about channels.” But Myers pursues the analogy: ”To users, the Internet is not an organized experience, so we become known as a place for episodic entertainment. Fox has a definite feel, CBS has a definite feel, and so do we.” And like the TV nets, she says, Cybercast is actively looking to acquire new programming.

Surprisingly, American Cybercast is accepting paid product placement — an advertising technique banned by the FCC on free television. In addition to providing separate banners at the top of the page for sponsors, it integrates advertisers’ products directly into story lines (this past summer, for example, The Spot prominently plugged several of Sony Pictures’ summer movie releases). ”There are no rules,” says Myers. ”The people who come out ahead in this business will be the ones who think about what’s best for advertisers.” And what about what’s best for viewers? ”They’re a smart audience,” she says. ”They understand.”