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The web breeds a new kind of TV

A new wave of network-styled shows are heading online, including ”Tales from the Eastside,” ”Frat Ratz,” and more

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Most of what passes for modern TV is difficult enough to endure at 30 frames per second on a 20-inch Trinitron. Now imagine watching Veronica’s Closet as a flickering, postage-stamp-size image on your computer monitor. Sounds like must-avoid TV, right? So why are companies like Digital Entertainment Network (http://www.den.net), The Sync (http://www.thesync.com), and Pseudo (http://www.pseudo.com) forging ahead with ambitious slates of original Web-based shows and expecting people to tune — or rather, log — in?

”What’s so fun about this job is getting to come in every day and swing an ax at conventional wisdom,” laughs DEN president David Neuman, a former Disney Television executive whose Santa Monica-based company is betting that young, Net-savvy viewers will tune in to the network’s collection of webcast comedies, dramas, and reality shows. DEN’s strategy involves taking narrowcasting to new extremes with such fare as Tales From the Eastside — think 90210 for Latino teens — and Frat Ratz, which aims squarely at that elusive collegiate-stoner demographic. ”We’re like a consortium of local TV stations,” Neuman analogizes, ”except, instead of Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Atlanta, our constituencies are rave partygoers, Hispanic teenagers, and young Christians.”

The veteran among the new Web nets is the five-year-old, New York-based Pseudo, which, with its combination of music, game, and tech-oriented shows, comes off as the online love child of Spin and Wired. ”We’re trying to create entertainment forms native to the Web,” says Pseudo marketing director Peter Tashjian, ”by combining video with chat, message boards, and other interactive features.” Rival ”webwork” The Sync, meanwhile, operates out of the distinctly non-media capital of Laurel, Md., but has won a loyal following with programs hosted by the likes of Jennifer Ringley (of JenniCam infamy) and comic monologuist Terry ”SnackBoy” Crummitt. ”We come at things from a much more Netcentric perspective,” president Thomas Edwards says of the Sync’s ethos. ”No one expects to watch Friends on the Net. In fact, too much slickness tends to turn off a lot of the audience.” SnackBoy defines the tone a little more precisely: ”At 3:15 every weekday afternoon, I’ll give you a five-minute comedy snack. Maybe I’ll tell you about getting fired from my job, or maybe I’ll talk about the first time my penis popped out of my pants in elementary school.”

Despite the, uh, unorthodox subject matter, the Web nets do follow the traditional television model of posting new episodes at regularly scheduled times, though installing the software to run streaming video remains a more daunting task than flipping on a TV. ”I still haven’t figured out how to make it work on my computer,” admits Elsie Escobar, one of the stars of Eastside, who has to go to DEN headquarters to watch her own show. Still, Web show producers are using a variety of tricks — including simplified backgrounds, a reliance on close-ups, and no moving camera shots — to keep the picture as clear as possible. ”One reason why DEN looks so much better than other people’s stuff is that we’re customizing our product for the Internet as it exists now,” says Neuman. ”That means making our product look good on a 56K modem running over an AOL connection.”

It helps, too, that the current wave of Web programmers have learned hard lessons from the high-profile failures of such Web programs as 1995-97’s The Spot. ”The first wave of Web entertainment was primarily text-based,” says Neuman, ”and we believe in making video central to our programming.” Adds John Geirland, coauthor of Digital Babylon, a forthcoming book that charts the progress of Internet entertainment from the early 1990s to the present: ”What really killed online entertainment was that no one gave it enough time to be successful. The DENs and Pseudos have learned the importance of having a viable business model — a mixture of advertising, sponsorship, and e-commerce.”

That said, some observers doubt the computer monitor will emerge as a serious competitor to TV anytime soon. ”Trying to shove a video entertainment experience down a narrow pipe is difficult,” says Patrick Keane, who tracks Internet trends at Jupiter Communications. ”Television is a good entertainment box, while most people still view their PC as a tool for work and communication.” Adds NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa: ”I think the Internet is a tremendous resource, but I don’t see video entertainment as an efficient use of it. Let’s say three of us wanted to watch ER one second apart. That means ER has to get sent out three separate times. Now multiply that by 27 million.” Aside from a few specialized examples such as real-time sports coverage, Sassa believes the long-predicted convergence of TV and the Net just isn’t going to happen. ”I’m a believer in ‘lean-back’ and ‘lean-forward’ experiences,” he says. ”And TV’s fundamentally a lean-back experience, while answering your e-mail or shopping online is a lean-forward one.”

It’s an assessment Tashjian actually agrees with. ”We’re not looking to make videos and put them on the Web, because NBC already does television very well. The Web’s not a great place to show television. But it is a great place to show a dynamic experience that involves the audience.” The advent of cheap broadband access should speed Web video’s development; Neuman compares the change to ”moving from a 10-inch black-and-white set to IMAX.” But observers like Geirland worry that big-money investors won’t have the stomach to stick with the new medium. ”Audiences for online entertainment may grow slowly,” he cautions. ”It may take years before an Uncle Miltie or an Ernie Kovacs comes along to break the medium wide open.”

But for webcasting pioneers like Neuman, any uncertainties are more than counterbalanced by the excitement of working in a brand-new medium. ”The state of this industry today is like where film was at in 1903, and we all get to feel like D.W. Griffith,” he says. ”We’ve made The Great Train Robbery, but Intolerance is yet to come.”

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