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As the Cyber World Turns

Draped across a clothes-strewn bed, 24 year-old Kristin Herold takes her direction. Her scheming character, Michelle, has landed a job cleaning a wealthy woman's house, and is snooping and sampling the high life.

Take one: She's standing before a mirror, pleased with the plunging neckline of a borrowed suit. Take two: In the closet, trying on diamond jewelry. Minutes later, she's on a couch feigning fatigue and disgust, after pretending to vacuum.

What Michelle is thinking, no one knows. In this scene, as in all others for the Internet drama The Spot, the actors are silent, as is the room, except for the endless click-click of a still photographer snapping every pout and pose. The vacuum, though plugged in for pseudo-authenticity, was never even turned on. Eventually, the images will merge with the script in the form of a visual diary.

It's high-tech meets low-maintenance on the set of The Spot, the World Wide Web's first serial drama or "cybersoap" (http://www.thespot.com).

Imagine combining MTV's Real World with Fox's Melrose Place. The Spot is a traditional soap opera, a sprawling tale of betrayal, lust and ambition set amongst a group of good-looking twentysomethings bunking in a beach house with a "Cyberian" Husky.

Unlike TV, you have to have a computer, Internet access and the willingness to read, write and work a little to share in the fun. Miss a day, a week, a month? No problem. Catching up will only cost a few more dollars of online time.

"This is the future," raves Sheri Anderson-Thomas, who wrote 4,000 hours worth of Days of Our Lives and Falcon Crest and now lends her Emmy-winning credibility to The Spot.

"There's more freedom with language, sexuality, titillation. On the Internet, we can really get into the hearts and souls of the characters."

In the year since The Spot debuted, it spawned a virtual cybersoap revolution, getting nibbles from TV producers, landing a book deal with Simon and Schuster and inspiring some 40 competitors. They range from the slick and sultry New York-themed East Village (http://www.theeastvillage.com) _ which has a clever "clique" feature that gives fans secret information about favorite characters _ to an amateurish "bitcom" about monster trucking called Mudders (http://www.newyorkmetro.com).

There is a gay-themed saga (770 Oceanwalk) (http://www.newyorkmetro.com) and Ferndale, a voyeuristic trip inside a virtual therapy group (http://www.ferndale.com). For Midwesterners, there's Lake Shore Drive (http://www.chiweb.com), which allows users to create their own character and make cameo appearances.

All of the cyberserials promise youthful-minded entertainment, genuine interaction and the opposite of "Must-See TV" _ the freedom to visit at fans' convenience. E-mail a character, and you're guaranteed a speedy response, as nasty or as polite as you were. Clever suggestions from fans often wind up influencing the next day's story.

The best of the serials offer Quicktime video and Real Audio _ hints of a televisionlike future. The worst can take hours to download nothing but poorly written text and blurry pictures.

"Television is linear, it's flat. You see what you get in the order you get it," notes Charles Stuart Platkin, one of the creators of The East Village, a gritty, if self-absorbed drama that also provides New York bar guides and a history lesson about the actual East Village neighborhood. "The Internet is active. There's still a sense of imagination."

Developed by multimedia companies, ad agencies and would-be writers, none have yet made any money, nor broken even. But they might, and that's enough for even smaller-time entrepreneurs like Remy Artega to put up $100,000 to get in the game.

"I see the Web a few years from now with a guy like Al Bundy sitting on a couch, switching between Married . . . With Children on TV and Babes on the Internet. Why not start now?" says Artega, whose NYM Studios produces the lower-budget Mudders and 770 Oceanwalk and is working to make his serials more interactive and game-oriented.

"Getting people online is one thing. Keeping them there is another," he says.

The same optimism and intrigue drew some 450 actors and models to a casting call for 12 spots on The East Village last year. One of its sassier cyberstars, Hope Adams _ who plays Eve Ramsay, a sexually ambitious editor _ has signed with the powerful William Morris Agency.

"This is a new field, a speculative business. The up side is enormous if you have a hit," Platkin says. "Decades from now, Hope may be a big movie star. And she'll have gotten her start on the Internet."

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