Race profiling

Icebox's 'Mr. Wong'

  It doesn't
 bode well for an industry intent on revolutionizing entertainment that its main theme is a copycat of the Last Big Thing.

What killed Icebox?
Same-old, same-old.

Web creators 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." 
   The 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 NATPE convention.
    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 them. 
    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.
     Animation is 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 animated series. 
    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.
    Sites 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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2001 Media Life