need to find the Next Big Thing
By Andrew Wallenstein
To hear that yet another
company went belly up in the brutal business of creating short-form
programming for the internet was not surprising.
After all, Digital
Entertainment Network, Stan Lee Media, Pixelon and most famously,
Dreamworks-backed Pop.com, are just a few of the companies that died over
the past year, despite considerable hype.
But last week's death certificate was for Icebox, one
of the top contenders in a crowded field. Icebox was home to buzzed-about
series, including "Mr. Wong" and "Queer Duck."
company had sold a series to Showtime
("Starship Regulars"), and another was being considered as a
pilot at Fox ("Zombie College"). Icebox attracted top talent
including "Seinfeld" co-creator Larry David and "Dr. Katz,
Professional Therapist" creator Jonathan Katz.
Then Icebox's CEO left last week and it failed to
qualify for a new round of funding. With all this company had going for
it, a simple question remains.
If Icebox can't do it, who can?
It's a strange but fascinating business, this web
programming. When companies with colorful names like Honkworm and Crap TV
first started appearing several years ago, they hailed themselves as the
next generation of TV networks.
But from where this viewer stood they were just web
sites with some strikingly weird but otherwise uninteresting
Flash-animated or streaming-video series. This budding genre seemed more
like public access than major network.
Then came the budget cutbacks, mass layoffs, funding
fadeouts and executive departures. And those were the hot companies.
Humility replaced hubris.
Realizing net surfers weren't tuning in, they
reinvented themselves as production companies where creative minds could
execute their ideas at a fraction of the cost of a TV pilot. These web
companies began mingling with the networks, even selling themselves at the
So far the makeover hasn't been impressive. There have
been a few highlights, like Urban Entertainment's "Undercover
Brother" being made into a feature film and Camp Chaos currently
shooting a pilot for VH1. But neither has actually materialized yet, so
the industry has nothing to show for itself yet.
I have sampled dozens of the hundreds of web shows out
there, and few of them have entertained me sufficiently enough to revisit
I cannot stand
streaming video. Almost all internet video programs have low-quality
pictures and rarely play through without some digital glitch.
Which is why Flash animation is still the way to go for
the time being. It's not just a matter of being cheaper, easier and better
for bandwidth limitation than video.
also the easiest to translate to wireless and handheld devices, which
represent a huge growth area (in South Korea, cell-phone users collect and
trade digital animation loops of characters), as well as retail
merchandise (T-shirts, mugs, etc).
Comedy Central's "South Park" has shown how
ratings are just a small part of how much revenue can be reaped from
But that's the problem in the web entertainment business:
Everybody is copying "South Park's" creative formula. Nearly
every comedic offering on the internet insists on pushing the boundaries
of political incorrectness in order to generate publicity, particularly
regarding offensive ethnic humor. Check out Icebox ("Mr. Wong";
Asian stereotypes), Media Trip ("Lil' Pimp"; black stereotypes)
Threshold ("The Producer"; Jewish stereotypes).
It doesn't bode well for an industry intent on
revolutionizing entertainment that its main theme is a copycat of the Last
Big Thing. Web shows have got
to find the Next Big Thing, which they probably won't be able to rip off
from TV (that means no reality shows). One promising avenue is
interactivity, or multiple narrative paths the reader can direct.
like Eruptor and Romp have experimented with the format, but no one has
really aced it yet.
The best thing about the interactivity idea? It can't
be done on TV.
Ultimately, that's what internet entertainment has to
be about: making possible what can't be accomplished with existing media.
It will be interesting to see if anyone out there is up to the challenge.
-Andrew Wallenstein is the television
critic for Media Life.
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