American Cybercast, an early leader in the fledgling business of creating original entertainment on the World Wide Web, has laid off 12 employees--about 20% of its work force--and is now enduring an unusual fan protest as a result.
The layoffs came just a month after the privately held Marina del Rey firm, known for the pioneering Web serial "The Spot," reorganized its Web site (http://www.amcy.com) to resemble a television network, complete with a selection of advertising-supported "shows" and the call letters AMCY.
Executives of the company, which counts Intel Corp., Tele-Communications Inc. and Creative Artists Agency among its investors, declined to comment on other aspects of the restructuring except to say that the layoffs were spread throughout the firm.
Among those laid off was Jeffrey Gouda, a popular project manager for "The Spot," and his dismissal has provoked a boycott by cultish fans of the show.
They're angry over increased commercialization, which they fear is turning the Internet into a banal stepchild of TV. Gouda's departure was seen by some fans as the last straw because, to them, he had come to symbolize the best facets of online entertainment: interactivity and a sense of community.
"I personally despise soap operas," said Harry Zink, a computer consultant who set up a protest site at http://www.spotfans.com. "So why do I like 'The Spot'? It was the feeling of community that the production gives. The audience itself became part of the community."
Fans of TV soap operas can do little more than talk back to an unresponsive glass screen. But "Spot" viewers can read the characters' diaries and offer advice on topics ranging from jobs to relationships. Fans saw Gouda as a critical link between the audience and the show's production staff.
"He was the most interactive person on their site," said John McKay, an engineer and die-hard "Spot" fan who used to check the site 20 times a day. "By getting rid of him, we felt as if our input didn't matter anymore."
Debbie Myers, senior vice president of production at AMCY, said Gouda was let go for purely financial--not creative--reasons. But to Spotniks, such corporate-speak confirms their worst fears that the AMCY brass is dumbing-down the show so it will appeal to a broader, more television-style audience. Sheri Herman, president of privately held AMCY, is a veteran of E! Entertainment Television.
During Thanksgiving week, Scott Nourse resigned as producer of another AMCY show, "EON-4," out of concern that it was getting too "mainstream." The director and associate producer of "EON-4" are leaving as well.
Myers said the fan boycott has had no affect on ad revenue or corporate sponsorship. But company executives are clearly annoyed by the protest, which they claim is the single-handed effort of Zink. They allege that Zink is bitter about being turned down for a job and that he plans to launch a rival Web show--charges Zink says are preposterous.
The boycotters say they're getting 2,000 to 3,000 "hits" per day on the protest site, which probably means several fans are logging in. AMCY says it gets about 10,000 hits a day on "The Spot."
For his part, Gouda says he is flattered and definitely surprised by the outpouring of support from "Spot" protesters.
"I knew a core group of fans would be upset, but I never imagined it would evolve to this level," he said. "They are showing how much power the audience should have."