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MEDIA: CYBERSPACE, 90210

4 minute read
Ginia Bellafante

JUNE 7 MUST HAVE BEEN A GRAY DAY for the most impassioned computer geeks–the ones who find pure joy in Websites devoted to monitoring the process of brewing coffee. That was the date that The Spot, the first serial drama designed specifically for the Internet, made its debut. But the Net’s first narrative-driven vehicle did not venture into the mysteries of science fiction. Nor did it relate any apocalyptic fantasies about virtual militiamen. Instead it offered the lifeblood of housewives in terry-cloth slippers: a sexed-up daytime serial.

The Spot’s story line follows the adventures of seven roommates who share a Santa Monica, California, beach house. Each day, the journal entries of Tara, Lon, Michelle and their friends are posted on the site. “When I looked him in the eyes, I saw the man-boy that I love,” writes Michelle. “Just hours earlier I was contemplating spending eternity in the strong arms of my muscle machine, Billy.” Accompanying the flaky introspection are still photos of the actors and models who represent the characters. Newcomers can catch up by reading the characters’ biographies and other background information.

Cybersurfers have come slumming in droves. With nearly 40,000 visitors–or “hits,” in cyberspeak–a day, The Spot has become one of the hottest sites on the Web. E-mail messages flash in from more than 50 countries. Fan suggestions are routinely incorporated into the onscreen action. “It’s the interaction that makes it work,” says Russell Collins, president of Fattal & Collins, the California ad firm that funded the $100,000 launch of The Spot.

The Spot’s popularity quickly gave rise to more than a dozen other cybersoap clones. Now the modem ready can revel in series such as Lake Shore Drive, which chronicles yuppie intrigue in Chicago, and Ferndale, a saga about patients in a psychoanalytic clinic, one of whom is a man hoping to become a lesbian.

One of the newest and sharpest cybersoaps is The East Village, which debuted on the World Wide Web late last month. Revolving around a group of young aspiring artists who convene in the body-pierced precincts of lower Manhattan, The East Village is the soap most self-consciously targeted to the Net’s alternative-culture sensibility. Its heroine is Eve, a writer whose diary relates the goings-on of her barhopping social circle: Daphne, a struggling actress; Joe, a cartoonist who has a thing for Eve; and Mick, the resident slacker, the object of Eve’s desire because “he is from the heartland; he’s pretty honest; and he likes board games.”

Piquant as The East Village is at times, neither it nor its competitors offer much that their TV counterparts don’t. Viewers may be able to exchange E-mail with their favorite cybersoap characters, but TV viewers can already talk to daytime stars like Susan Lucci in one of the many soap-opera chat rooms accessible through America Online. Desperate to offer added value, cybersoaps end up inundating the viewer with often inane backstory details simply because the technology allows it. Click on the word infidelity in The East Village and you will call up a timeline listing the ways in which Eve has spent the anniversary of the first time she cheated on a boyfriend. (Sample entry: “1988–went skiing.”) Hardly competition for the self-mocking melodrama of TV’s Melrose Place, which in the course of a few episodes will turn an heiress into a homeless woman who suffers a fatal fall and becomes a ghost that haunts her ex-husband.

Cybersoaps will have to develop equally involving, addictively absurd story lines to keep viewers coming back and to achieve their ultimate goal: attracting advertisers. The Spot currently has four sponsors–Hugo Boss, Honda, K-Swiss sneakers and C/Net, paying an average monthly rate of $16,500 apiece. But that revenue doesn’t cover the show’s production costs, which run to $90,000 a month.

So will cybersoaps prove only a momentary novelty? Perhaps. But the entertainment industry is hedging its bets. Three weeks ago, the budding NBC-Microsoft network tapped The Spot’s creators, Scott Zakarin and Troy Bolotnic, to develop new soaps for the online service. If the duo is successful, their soaps could eventually wind up as series on NBC’s broadcast network.

–With reporting by Patrick E. Cole/Los Angeles

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