Hollywood snares

Online entertainment companies have tangled the Web with bad TV simulations. Now "Digital Babylon" portrays their failures -- but can it help prevent new ones?


Janelle Brown
September 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The modus operandi of WireBreak.com, a new entertainment network for 18-to-34-year-olds, is neatly summed up by a video clip on its front door. "Here at WireBreak we focus on integrity, quality and substance," the coiffed spokesman, in a blazer and T-shirt, winks at the camera, "and we've come to believe that there's absolutely no demand for any of that!"

With that, visitors are launched into a series of online "shows," consisting of film shorts, "humorous" news, an episodic serial and something called "Girl's Locker Talk." A sample of what you'll see: four guys reminiscing about getting laid at homecoming; a gaggle of nervous girls giggling about how to prolong an erection ("Feed them lots of chicken. It makes them go longer"); a news "anchor" joking about donkey penises; and a sitcom about Venice Beach featuring an oaf named "Danger -- that's short for Dangerous." That is, that's what you get when your RealPlayer plug-in isn't frozen with a "Net congestion, Buffering" message.

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If this is the future of online entertainment, it's bleak. And it is aggravatingly similar to the failed, high-profile entertainment networks of the past. A slew of new Hollywood Internet companies like WireBreak, Digital Entertainment Network (DEN), Entertaindom, Atom Films and others promise cutting-edge concepts -- but a glance back at recent Net history like the one provided by "Digital Babylon: How the Geeks, the Suits, and the Ponytails Fought to Bring Hollywood to the Internet," a new book chronicling the initial rise and fall of online entertainment, makes it glaringly apparent that the industry hasn't evolved much from the Web's early days.

Rewind to 1996, when the Web was still dominated by blink tags, and "sticky" referred to the frosting on your cinnamon bun, not the way to ensure repeat visits to your site. Then, the hot spot online was in fact an episodic serial called "The Spot." It used a diary format and lots of cheesecake photos of bodacious babes in itsy-bitsy bikinis to tell the ongoing story of a houseful of oversexed people in their 20s. For a while in 1996, it was among the most popular sites on the Web, and was the first online "soap opera."

For a time in 1996 and early 1997, online soap operas and episodic serials were all the rage. American Cybercast, the company producing "The Spot," also produced a sci-fi soap called "Eon4" and an ad-agency exposi called "The Pyramid"; Microsoft launched its splashy MSN network with two sexy serialized sitcoms and a dozen other "shows"; Time Warner hosted a hipster rip-off of "The Spot" called "The East Village"; even the indie Web studio Cyborganic worked on some episodics, including a "real-life soap opera" about Web workers called "Geek Cereal." By Christmas 1996, more than 100 Web serials were listed in Yahoo; everyone was gambling that this was the future of online content.

The experiment was a dismal failure. Two years later, most of those shows are digital graveyards or have ceased to exist. The demise of these early entertainment ventures is portrayed in "Digital Babylon." Written by John Geirland and Eva Sonesh-Kedar, this first book to focus its lens on the early days of Hollywood's online experiments offers a cautionary tale for those who aspire to launch themselves into Round 2 of interactive entertainment. As Geirland and Sonesh-Kedar put it in the introduction, "It's time to reflect on the story of the first wave of pioneers, to build on their successes and avoid repeating their mistakes as we speed wildly into the next era."

"Digital Babylon" is first and foremost a profile of the companies, Hollywood-sized egos and bald pates that worked feverishly to create that first round of failed online entertainment. The backbone of the book is the trajectory of "The Spot" and the careers of its creators, Scott Zakarin and Troy Bolotnik. In 1996, these two were cranking out videos about sexual harassment for a Los Angeles advertising agency. Then, within a two-year period, they created "The Spot," started a company called Lightspeed Media and launched another interactive soap opera, were bought out by America Online's Greenhouse Studios content group, and launched an entertainment supersite with TV legend Brandon Tartikoff. By early 1998 their online stardom was on the wane -- their Web sites were scaled back and shut down, and in no time the two insta-executives were back where they started, fired from AOL and erased from the short memory of the Net media.

The moral of this story? As Geirland and Sonesh-Kedar put it, "Media is always a crapshoot." There's a lot of truth to this statement; compared to the utility-based Web sites currently favored by the stock market, the Hollywood-style content companies have a much harder sell, appealing to imaginations instead of needs. But there's another important lesson for Hollywood here: Unlike movies and TV, the Net is not a passive medium. People don't go online to be spoon-fed; they aren't inclined to "tune in" once a week or once a day to follow the plot line of a serial show. Most surf with a purpose, but even when that purpose is entertainment, most people aren't actively seeking a simulation of bad TV online. Before such lessons were learned, even well-funded endeavors created by veteran industry players, like the entertainment networks that were produced by AOL and MSN, fell victim to such mistakes. Content, after all, is appallingly expensive to produce -- lagging "viewership" in a medium that as yet has no profitable business model for these kinds of endeavors was, and still is, a recipe for disaster.

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"Digital Babylon" does dig deeper for analysis of these failures than simply pointing out that media is a tough sell. Geirland and Sonesh-Kedar pose the demise of these projects as the result of an untenable conflict between three groups: "the suits" (business executives and investors), "the geeks" (techies and engineers) and "the ponytails" (Hollywood creatives). The three couldn't agree on a way to make profits, content and cutting-edge technology work together in a way that newbie consumers on a 28.8 modem would find engaging and easy to consume.

Although "Digital Babylon" isn't the most engaging book -- the story of the rise and fall of "The Spot" lacks any inherent drama, and the insights offered by the authors are often self-evident -- it is a worthwhile case study for anyone who cares deeply about where online entertainment is going. "The Spot" may now be a footnote in the history of the Net, but you can still see its ghost (or, at least, similar inspirations) in the second wave of entertainment networks now emerging. With high-speed broadband and cable Internet access increasingly likely in the near future, more and more companies are eager to create entertainment to flow down those pipes.

But one point that "Digital Babylon" doesn't really make in 250 pages of microscopically detailed entries about the early entertainment projects is that most weren't at all entertaining. "The Spot," despite its moment in the sun, was a badly written melodrama, interesting more for its novelty at the time than its plot; AOL's expensive Entertainment Asylum project, a "personality driven" entertainment portal, was boring, patronizing and tried too hard to be funny. With all the fun, odd home pages out there -- created not by slick Hollywood types, but by quirky and independent individuals -- why would surfers want to return day after day to the planned and trite soap operas that so many content networks were producing? No wonder these projects found that their traffic petered out after the initial spike of curiosity-seekers.

This mistake, unfortunately, seems likely to be repeated by the second round of entertainment networks, several of which have launched this year. Companies like WireBreak -- created by David Wertheimer, a former executive at Paramount Digital Entertainment and one of the egos featured in "Digital Babylon" -- and DEN, created by former Disney and Microsoft executives, plus the upcoming Entertaindom from Warner Brothers Interactive, are all following a similar model of regular shows, episodic entertainment and lowbrow humor. The main difference is that this time, they're providing video instead of mere text and pictures.

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DEN, for example, is featuring a slate of soap operas, "documentaries" and talk show-like content geared at Gen Y. This includes shows like "Exoticom" (two obnoxious comedians go to Thailand and complain about their flight); "Tales from the Eastside" (stereotyped Chicana battles to keep her brother from becoming a gang member); "Redemption High" ("Episode 4: Christians battle demons") and my personal favorite, "Fratratz," a mind-bogglingly bad frat house serial, which contains dialogue like this:

Guy, with a girl on each arm, to friend: "Dude, you're never going to believe this, but these two girls, Brittany and Tiffany, want to sleep with us."

Girl to guy: "We mean it. We were on campus today, promoting our fitness video, and we saw you guys ... We're nymphomaniacs. And we have a thing for innocent college guys."

Companies like WireBreak and DEN are born out of Hollywood, from people who've long worked in the film or television or advertising industries, and the content these companies are producing reflects that heritage. Their shows consist of lowest-common-denominator narratives, mimicking the linear format, intelligence and style of TV sitcoms and cable shows -- except they aren't even that good. Sal LoCurto, senior vice president for marketing and programming for WireBreak, explains away their content strategy: "The Net is about being gritty, not being slick, about an underground voyeuristic mind-set." But "not being slick" (read: low budgets) doesn't compensate for poorly written humor and bad acting.

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If I want to watch mindless entertainment, I'll turn on the TV; if I turn on my computer, I'm looking for something snappier, intelligent, interactive, with a bite or a kick and a whiff of wit. The best streaming content online right now is targeted, smart and Web-appropriate -- like the witty "Star Wars" parodies created by fans at Counting Down, the striking animated short films over at Shockwave and Atom Films. Even Pseudo, despite the occasional misstep and grainy video quality, creates some engaging fringe talk-show style content for subcultures like gaming fans and urban fashionistas.

But "Digital Babylon" apparently doesn't share my attitude. The book is credulous in its explanation of how the lowest-common-denominator school of content creation came to dominate the Net. It lauds "The Spot" creator Scott Zakarin and defines his observation that people in chat rooms like to talk about sex as "a genuine and important insight. These people were dying to be entertained," write Geirland and Sonesh-Kedar. But those people sound like they were doing just fine entertaining themselves. If the "vision" of the Zakarins and the Wertheimers of the world -- the same old formula of celebrities, sex and bathroom humor -- are in fact representative of the content we should expect in the future, that is grim indeed. The Net offers a chance to do so much more.

At one point, "Digital Babylon" offers up a quote from New York Times columnist Denise Caruso, who comments that "the Web is in fact not a mass medium, but a medium for the masses, who are already well along in the process of making it their own." This is a message that Hollywood -- a culture that Russell Collins, former chairman of American Cybercast, describes as "the craziest, most self-obsessed, self-congratulatory culture that has ever existed in the history of man" -- should take to heart as it looks online.

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Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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