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The future of Webisodics

Hugely popular two years ago, internet soaps like ”The Spot” are losing steam

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Ambition, betrayal, recriminations, disaster: The saga of the Web serial The Spot (http://www.thespot.com) boasts all the classic soap opera ingredients. Trouble is, these days they’re swirling around the site’s creators and fans. The Santa Monica-set beach sizzler, which at its peak reportedly tallied as many as 100,000 hits a day, finally sank on July 1, thanks to overreaching by its corporate parent, American Cybercast.

AMCY acquired The Spot in its 1995 heyday, hoping the soap’s popularity would help it become the Web’s first entertainment network. But its tinkering alienated the audience. In trying to make The Spot more mainstream, AMCY cut back on its biggest draw — namely, the E-mail-based interactivity that enabled fans to help shape character development and plot twists. (It was this interactivity that forged an avid community of Spot fans who partied together offline and even started their own bulletin board, http://www.spotfans.com.) Off screen, industry sources say, wild spending and confused leadership caused the firm’s slide into bankruptcy. In 1996, AMCY reportedly threw $90,000 a month into The Spot. Within a year, the $6 million invested by such deep-pocketed sponsors as Intel and Creative Artists Agency was gone; halfway into ’97, the site finally folded. The Spot‘s future, if any, now rests with one of the serial’s founders, former AMCY chairman Russell Collins, whose new company, Cyber Oasys, bought back the remnants for $115,000 and agreed to wipe out just over $1.5 million of AMCY’s debt.

Like any soap opera, this is also a cautionary tale. If a serial as hot as The Spot once was (Net voters named it 1995’s Cool Site of the Year) can founder, can other Webisodics avert a similar fate? The signs are ominous. Well-funded serials like MSN’s (914) and 475 Madison Avenue and AOL’s Ferndale have been canceled. Smaller labor-of-love sites like O’Brien’s Cafe, starved of fans and funding, have become stale browser bait. There are just too many soaps (Yahoo! lists more than 100) competing for a fickle, click-happy audience and chasing too few ad dollars. Online ad sales totaled only $300 million last year, compared with TV’s $31 billion.

In the post-Spot era, however, cyberserials are showing up in a new incarnation: as proving grounds for potential TV shows. Lifetime’s ”digital drama” In the House of Dreams (http://www.lifetimetv.com/dramas/dreams/index.html), which has run since last November, has attracted some 200,000 new visitors to Lifetime’s website (roughly equal to the average number of viewers of a daytime cable-channel program). Lifetime plans a Dreams book and perhaps a crossover TV series. MGM reportedly has six Net serials in development, all potential TV shows or movies. AOL’s upcoming Entertainment Asylum site may eventually launch some Web serials, including Beggars and Choosers, a proposed Showtime collaboration that would invite fans to join newsgroup chats and exchange E-mail between televised episodes.

Meanwhile, Webisodics not being supported by media-conglomerate sugar daddies will have to get leaner to survive. ”You have to be as creative as possible without losing your audience — and figure out a way to make money,” says Charles Platkin, creator of the two-year-old soap The East Village (www.eastvillage.com). So while hoping for income from an independently produced East Village music CD, Platkin says EV has slashed monthly spending from $60,000 to $12,000 by using still photos instead of video, laying off staffers, and postponing expansion projects.