Cybersoaps Hope to Hook Online Audiences
On May 14, news that a top-secret scientific team was communicating with an intelligent race from another galaxy came to light on the Internet. Word of the Groom Lake, Nev.-based project, called Eon-4, spread like a California brush fire, particularly because the revelation was preceded by announcements that NASA, the Pentagon, the FBI and the CIA all denied any knowledge of such a project. Clearly, this was a plot. Indeed it was. A very savvy marketing plot, hatched by Kay Dangaard, senior vice president of media relations for American Cybercast, a California company that is positioning itself as a digital entertainment network. DangaardÕs goal: to become the ABC or NBC of the Internet. Eon-4 is American CybercastÕs newest soap opera. It is the fourth program launched by the company since it introduced the first Internet soap, The Spot, in June, 1995. To generate interest in the sci-fi show, Dangaard had the producers call government agencies and simply ask if they were aware of a secret project called Eon-4 in Nevada. Their denials plugged right into the psyche of the many conspiracy theorists surfing the Net. By the end of the showÕs first week, the Eon-4 site was being visited 100,000 times a day. ÒEveryone believed it was a government coverup,Ó says Dangaard. Even when the company let the world wide web know that it was really a serialized show created by Rockne OÕBannon, the brains behind the film and TV show Alien Nation, people still didnÕt believe them. ÒThey came back and said, `No, itÕs a conspiracy. YouÕre just saying itÕs a show.ÕÓWelcome to the future of entertainment. Scary, ainÕt it? And this is just the beginning. Today there are about 82 serialized shows running on the Internet. They range from the ÒT@P Virtual DormÓ (http://www. taponline.com/tap/voyeur/vdorm/) -- an Internet version of MTVÕs Real World, which offers 24-hour-a-day voyeuristic video peeks at life in college -- to slickly produced shows written by professional television and movie writers and starring recognizable actors. In Chicago, the daily soap Lake Shore Drive, the sci-fi series Above the Unicorn and Affairs of the Net, about the e-mail love affair of an ill-fated couple, are all produced by the Lake & Unicorn Media Group, one of 25 video production companies in Chicago bent on making their home town the next Hollywood. Meanwhile, in New York City, avid Web browsers are following the diaries of Eve, a 24-year-old editor struggling with the daily problems facing she and her peers in The East Village (http://www.theeastvillage.com). Most of these serial soaps were created by marketing companies. American CybercastÕs The Spot, for instance, was the brainchild of Fattal & Collins advertising agency in Marina Del Rey, Calif. It all started when five employees decided to pretend they were roommates and keep a diary of their lives on the Internet to test the appeal of an episodic story. ÒFor several months it really was real people, although nobody was really living in a house in Santa Monica,Ó says Dangaard. ÒWe were getting 500 e-mails a day. Now we are a real company. WeÕve gone from a couple of employees Jan. 1 to over 69 employees, plus 39 actors and outside consultants. WeÕre attracting top talent.Ó Indeed, the companyÕs Quick Fix Theater offers daily shorts written by the likes of Spalding Gray, Kathy Najimy, Dave Thomas, Jonathan Katz and Paula Poundstone. It is also attracting some pretty impressive equity partners, too. TCI Cablevision, Intel and Creative Artists Agency, as well as investment bankers Eallen and Company are all involved at this point. While everyone is convinced there is money to be made on the Internet, including megasponsors Sony and Toyota, the money isnÕt exactly rolling in yet. The East Village, designed by Marinex Multimedia in New York, was launched about six months ago. Actor Malcolm Adams, who is currently performing in Under Milk Wood at Hartford Stage, is a regular character on the cybersoap. He plays an Irishman named Duncan, one of the denizens of East Village, which means that he shows up for photo shoots about once a month to pose for pictures to go with the script. ÒItÕs still in an early phase and they put a lot of resources into it, so nobodyÕs getting paid at the moment,Ó says Adams. East Village already has paid off for actress Hope Adams, who plays the showÕs main character, Eve. Exposure from the Internet soap has landed her representation by the William Morris talent agency and a film deal. Marinex Multimedia, meanwhile, is planning to spin out a line of clothing and an alternative music CD. American Cybercast is also making money by spinning its serials off into more conventional media. The Spot was recently released in book form by Simon & Schuster as the official companion to the Internet show. Meanwhile there is talk of adapting Eon-4 for a second book project. ÒWhile weÕre doing very well I donÕt think many sites will be entirely advertising-supported for many years, so itÕs obvious that one needs to have ancillary markets,Ó says Dangaard. Certainly the industry is in its infancy. But many website creators are positioning themselves for the time when everyone has a television adapted for viewing on-line programs. In the meantime, fans are flocking to the new serials for the same reason they watch televised soap operas, because the story or the characters appeal and they get hooked. Of course, the Internet offers a slightly different experience. ÒThe whole key is the word interactive,Ó says Dangaard. ÒIf youÕre on The Spot you can zip around and talk to the actual characters and give input. We do take note of their input and weÕve taken advice.Ó When one of the characters developed a drinking problem, The Spot received e-mail from 56 countries from concerned fans, suggesting that the character get help. In response, script writers sent her into recovery and sheÕs now turned her life around. The other big advantage of soaps on the Internet is that every episode is posted on the web, so you can go back and find out what you missed. Viewers can also selectively follow the story, tracking the experiences of a favorite character, for example. With this in mind, Cybercast writes its stories so that each characterÕs development can stand alone. Also, unlike soap operas on television, the stories can be as current as CNN News, with characters talking about the major news events of the day. The downside to any Internet program right now is the technology. While the showsÕ producers have the top-of-the-line computer equipment capable of sending video, sound and animated segments over the World Wide Web, many people logging on to their sites are staring at the black-and-white screens of their personal computers, connected with very slow modems. Even if you have compatible software to download a video clip, the Cybercast sites still warn that it takes about 15 minutes to receive a two-minute video clip. Compared to the instant gratification and ever-shifting images of television, waiting even a minute seems too long, particularly when all you get to look at is a still photograph and short plot synopsis. Still, cybersoaps are proving popular as people log onto chat lines about the shows, discuss their favorite characters and, in the case of Eon-4, debate the scientific possibilities raised by the script writers. ÒEvery day on the bulletin board there are heavy, deep discussions going on between scientists and regular lay people,Ó says Dangaard. ÒWe get a huge amount of hits from the Jet Propulsion Lab at NASA.Ó It doesnÕt get more forward-thinking than that. As American Cybercast is fond of saying, Òthe revolution will not be televised.Ó When it comes to the revolution in entertainment, thatÕs right on target.