Look. Look. See the Spot Run. Look. Look. See the Spot Grow. Look. Look. See the Future of Soaps.
The scene is another location shoot: A cast of seven with Westside L.A. good-looks strikes a series of poses. The photo crew is lean. There are no lights, no vans, just a 35mm camera and a Sony Handycam. Here in this pock-marked shopping center parking lot are the stars from the biggest show on the cyber screen, and yet no one knows who they are. Near a takeout restaurant, the show’s producer snaps pictures as the sun sinks behind a Ralphs grocery store.
They are hamming it up--leaning together shoulder to shoulder, all smiles. Click.
Faces together, cheek-to-cheek. Click.
One playfully shoves the other. Click.
A few shoppers glance at them, but no one is staring. Suddenly, a man in a Pendleton shirt and jeans struts to a nearby automatic teller machine, almost interrupting the session. “Yo,” says the man. “are you those guys from ‘90210'?”
“No,” says one bewildered cast member.
Silence. Then the rest of them burst out in laughter. “Can you believe that?” says consulting producer Scott Zakarin with a grin, “he asked us if we’re from ‘90210'!” Santa Monica 90405 is more like it. If you surf cyberspace and call up https://www.thespot.com you know Em Caldwell, Carrie Seaver, Lon Oliver, Michelle Foster, Tomeiko Pierce, Jeff Benton and Audrey Shire--the characters from “The Spot,” the first soap opera on the World Wide Web. Each day, thousands of computer users launch their Web browsers to find out the latest happenings at a fictional beach house in Santa Monica. While the cast members have no endorsements and no offers to be on the cover of Vanity Fair, “The Spot” claims fans in Oslo and Prague as well as in Oxnard and Pasadena.
Once you hang out at “The Spot” for about a week or so, it’s clear that the serial is a day in the life of six Los Angeles men and women struggling to find themselves and coping in the big city with their relationships. Though fictional, they are like real people with real hopes and dreams and real problems that you might bump into at “The Viper Club” or on the Third Street Promenade. Lon, for example, is almost an L.A. stereotype, the struggling actor who is also vulnerable when it comes to love. Yet he is also well aware that he has no ambition in life. Carrie is the East Coast transplant who comes to L.A. and finds it both interesting and troubling at times. Tomeiko is an aspiring singer trying to find out who she is and involved in a seesaw relationship with character Jeff Benton. In short, it’s “Friends” meets MTV’s “The Real World.”
Says Zakarin, who created all the characters: “They are living in a place that’s a legend, and it’s almost their jobs to have an exciting and adventurous life. You know what they are thinking, and you know they are profoundly affected by the outside world. It’s more real than television and less real than your life.”
But more than just creating celebrities in cyberspace, the pioneering Net drama has ushered in a revolution. “The Spot” is an amalgam of storytelling forms--journal writing integrated with video and sound clips, all at the click of a mouse. Experts initially thought that the Internet was hardly the medium that would produce the first generation of cyber-couch potatoes. After all, why sit at a computer screen watching a soap opera when television seems to have perfected the formula already?
But it’s “The Spot” 's interactive possibilities, say staff members and others connected with the show, that makes it so different.
Like TV soaps and their letter-writing fans, many of the estimated 35,000 to 40,000 folks who log onto the show each day offer feedback in the form of e-mail, telling the cast members who they should fall in love with or when it’s time to get a new job or when to throw someone out of the house. And sometimes those suggestions end up in the daily plots. In addition, a daily feature called “Name That Spot” invites viewers to come up with silly captions for photos of the show’s characters.
“That’s what the [TV] networks are learning now,” says Zakarin. “We have broken the rules of dramatic structure. They’re already calling us the granddaddy of cybersoaps!” And “The Spot” is a mere 11 months old.
The Web site prodigy has won the Webby Award for “Cool Site of the Year” given by InfiNet, a Norfolk, Va.-based publishing company and Internet service provider--a remarkable achievement considering there are more than 100,000 Web sites on the Internet. Hence, “The Spot” has led to Web clones such as “Ferndale,” a story set in a psychiatric clinic, and “East Village,” a serial based in New York City. It has even led to a parody called “The Squat.”
“The Spot was one of the first places to put some quality entertainment on the World Wide Web,” says Stuart Turner, publisher of Websight magazine, who put the cast on the cover of his premier issue earlier this year. “It’s told in a multimedia fashion and you can slip back to previous episodes. It’s not a broadcast medium where everyone gets to see one show. You are actually in control of who you want to watch.”
Nicholas Negroponte, head of MIT’s Media Laboratory, a research center and think tank, sees a bright future for original Net entertainment enterprises like “The Spot.”
“Kids are tired of eating off the children’s menu of entertainment and want adult stimulation a la carte; one place to get such fun is the Net,” says Negroponte, author of the best-selling book “Being Digital.”
Adds technology analyst Paul Saffo: “What we’re doing is taking this raw, untamed technology and turning in it into a medium that touches and changes our lives. We’re borrowing a piece of an old medium like television and fitting it into the new medium. ‘The Spot’ is original and clever, and it fit nicely with the Net.
“It, however, will also evolve,” says Saffo of the Institute for the Future, based in Menlo Park, Calif. “The next generation of these things will allow people to participate [directly]. And while this won’t be mainstream, a lot of people will do it. It’s a powerful license for obsession.”
And Hollywood, realizing that power, has come calling. Creative Artists Agency, one of the premier talent agencies, struck a deal in January with American Cybercast, the company that produces “The Spot,” to invest money and find talent for American Cybercast’s productions. In addition, Zakarin and his partner, Troy Bolotnick, are talking to television networks and studios about exploring possibilities for new Web site shows. They have also signed on with Activision, a maker of interactive CD-ROM games (“Return to Zork”), to develop shows for Activision’s Web site.
“The Spot” was born in the ninth-floor offices of Fattal & Collins, a Marina del Rey advertising agency whose client list includes ABC Entertainment and Infinity, the luxury car maker. From the moment you step from the elevators to a reception area with a sweeping view of the Marina, Fattal & Collins feels like the kind of place where new ideas can flourish. Young art directors and staffers walk the corridors in jeans, polo shirts and tennis shoes, hashing out ideas about ad copy or the next great advertising logo. The creative staff of American Cybercast (an offshoot of Fattal & Collins)-- whose backers include the computer-chip maker Intel, CAA and Tele-Communications Inc., one of the nation’s largest cable system owners,-- occupy a suite on the same floor as the ad agency among cubicles stocked with Power Macintosh computers that purr and beep as the daily episodes are churned out.
The idea for “The Spot” first came in 1995, when Zakarin, then a copy writer at the ad agency and a filmmaker, was home making his customary evening rounds of American Online chat rooms on the Internet. In these chat rooms, users communicate to each other by typing in their names and messages. Zakarin used a woman’s name, Tarah.
“I wanted to get someone to talk to me, and women tend to attract men in these chat rooms,” says the bespectacled 32-year-old, as he sits cross-legged in a conference room and recounts his tale of creation. “She eventually became a 23-year-old in film school.” After Tarah developed a popular following among chat room regulars, Zakarin posed as Michelle, among other aliases. “My wife thought I was out of my mind,” he says. “And then something dawned on me: You have a worldwide audience on the Internet. So then I started thinking about a place where characters would exist. The one thing I wanted to do was to create the spot, the place they would go.”
That spot, in Zakarin’s mind, was a beach house in Santa Monica that would become the setting for a serial. There he envisioned a setting like something out of “The Big Chill,” one of his favorite movies. He then pitched his concept for a soap opera in cyberspace to Russell Collins, the ad agency’s president. Collins loved it. Zakarin was teamed with co-workers Bolotnick and Rich Takenberg, two other copy writers, to write and produce episodes with other Fattal & Collins staff members.
“I came up with the original characters,” Zakarin says, as partner Troy walks into the conference room with a shy smile. “Troy understood how to apply those characters to the Internet. Sometimes the best ideas would come to me in the middle of the night.”
The pair, it seems, were natural partners. Both Bolotnick, 25, and Zakarin grew up in Bellmore, N.Y., and attended the same kindergarten, grade school, high school and the State University of New York at Binghamton.
The resulting success of the partnership and birth of “The Spot” gave Collins the impetus to set up American Cybercast, which officially incorporated in January. “The idea of this company is to be the ABC of the Internet. No one knows how to do Web shows but us,” boasts Collins, 47.
But at the time of “The Spot” 's start-up, no one knew how to make the venture work as a business. With no track record for the fledgling enterprise, no investors and monthly production costs of up to $100,000, the show was a considerable risk for Collins and the agency. It was launched and financed entirely out of the company’s coffers for the first six months of its existence.
Collins tapped Sheri Herman, a former senior vice president of marketing at E! Entertainment Television, to oversee the business operations of American Cybercast. The two had met a few years ago when Fattal & Collins made an unsuccessful bid to become the cable channel’s ad agency.
“I see our network like the new cable channels back in the 1980s,” says Herman. ‘We’re creating a new medium, but we’re kind of a cross between publishing and broadcasting in that we’re going to be advertising driven.” With that blueprint in hand, “The Spot” was launched June 7, 1995, with considerable fanfare in the Net world, including a worldwide promotional blitz to about 160 cybercafes (think of a Starbucks with computers) as well as entertainment trade publications.
“The truth is that we didn’t know what it would do,” Collins says. “We expected to have 1,500 hits,” or the number of users visiting the Web page. “The Spot” 's premiere attracted about 70,000 hits on the first day. As the show’s buzz increased, as many as 120,000 Net users a day were dropping in for several weeks.
Keeping audiences hooked was the job facing Herman and American Cybercast’s staff of 25, including designers, writers and cast members. Three days a week, there is a story meeting in which Zakarin, head writer Eloise Ham and the cast think up episodes that appear only a day or two later on the Web site. The writers, which include some of the cast, then write their journal entries, which are approved by Zakarin and Herman. If an episode takes place in, say, Las Vegas, the cast will travel there to shoot still photos and video to be uploaded onto the Internet.
“After I spend some time in bed thinking about the episodes,” says Zakarin, scratching his Michael Jordan cut and adjusting his glasses, “I look at [the number of hits] from the previous show, and I look at the new pages. On the way into work, I think about the show. I try to feel it and read it as an audience member. I don’t want the episodes to be more than two days ahead. Otherwise, I feel like it reads like a novel. When Gene Kelly died, I wanted the characters to talk about it.”
In addition to e-mail, feedback comes in the form of electronic bulletin board postings and chat rooms from viewers around the globe. The show’s rules forbid cast members from reading another character’s journal during the production process, but some Spot watchers tell cast members what their co-stars are doing. Some of the most impassioned feedback came this year in March when Carrie, one of the more popular characters, wrote in her daily journal that she could not find the character Tara, who was missing and presumed dead: “All I know is that Tara’s missing,” she wrote. “I’ve heard it said 400 times, but things like this just don’t happen to people like us. Good People.”
Fan response to Tara’s disappearance was overwhelming. Matt Wasnick, for example, a Microsoft support engineer and a devoted “Spot” watcher, e-mailed the staff to express his feelings over Tara’s plight:
“I am confused as well as worried. I never imagined that I could get to know someone over the Internet the way I’ve gotten to know Tara Hartwick. Tara has the most amazing combination of intelligence, creativity and beauty of any woman I have yet observed. I was looking forward to watching her movies one day. Tara if you are out there, just come home to your brother and your friends. If anything has happened to you I will be very sad and I will never be able to erase you from my memory.”
A day after she mysteriously disappeared, Laurie Plaksin, who had written Tara, had second thoughts. “It’s been such a weird thing to let go of the show,” says Plaksin, 23, a striking blonde with blue eyes. “People were eulogizing Tara. So I feel a little uncomfortable about the show. It’s not much fun being dead as it is alive!”
As the world turns on “The Spot,” some observers wonder if the show is just an Internet flavor of the month and, most important, if American Cybercast will survive. The company thinks the future looks bright. Although its investors are still largely keeping the firm afloat, Herman has wooed advertisers American Honda, tennis shoe maker K-Swiss, Activision and Sony Pictures Entertainment. But with three or four ads running at a basic monthly rate of $16,500, that doesn’t cover “The Spot” 's $72,000 monthly production bill. Herman admits that she doesn’t expect the venture to break even until 1997, but she says more advertisers will line up once they get hip to the Internet as an advertising vehicle.
One who doubts that the masses will trade “Mad About You” for “The Spot” is Nelson Thall, research director of the Toronto-based Center for Media Sciences, which counts major corporations among its client base. “It’s a flash in the pan,” he says. “We can’t afford to entertain ourselves to death. Or else our survival is at stake. The kids are getting on the Internet, and they’re hunting for information, and there will be an overlap, and certainly during that period there will be entertainment on the Net, but the prime focus of the Internet won’t be entertainment, but information.”
Collins scoffs at such talk. “This is an interactive medium that blows television away,” says Collins. “ ‘The Spot’ is 10 times more fun than ‘Melrose Place.’ One day, American Cybercast will have its ‘I Love Lucy’ or its ‘Roseanne.’ ”
Meanwhile, Bolotnick, Zakarin and Plaksin already see bright lights ahead. In March, they started their own company, Lightspeed Media, to develop new entertainment ideas for cyberspace. And American Cybercast is gearing up to launch “Eon 4,” a science-fiction docudrama that is scheduled to premiere May 15. Also on the drawing board is a corporate drama set in a high-tech company and two other projects. “If we were a movie studio, we would be Miramax with a little more edge,” says Herman, citing the name of a studio that takes on less mainstream projects.
And with such a successful track record right out of the blocks, the days of many people saying, ‘What’s “The Spot” ’? may be coming to a close. And the cast may have to get used to signing autographs, for once. “I remember this guy coming up to us at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas,” recalls Zakarin, “and he walked up to us and said, ‘You’re those crazy kids from Santa Monica.’ And I was reading in the trades about Fox Television’s new offering called ‘Polaroid Place’ and it mentioned that it was the first time the network had done a show like ‘The Spot.’ To me, that was a rite of passage.”