A Brief History
For a time, it seemed as though Scott Zakarin had changed the future of entertainment media.
The story goes like this: In 1995 Zakarin, a young New York film maker, moved to L.A. looking to break into film by directing TV commercials for Fattal & Collins, a Marina Del Ray advertising firm. In his spare time, he liked to surf chat rooms on the ‘Net, which was just becoming popular at the time. Zakarin fell into the (common) habit of assuming other identities on the various chat sites. One night, he woke from a dream about a house where he met all the chat characters he'd created. . .and thus was the "epiphany" that evolved into The Spot, a web creation that not only launched a new genre, the "webisodic" (or world-wide-web based episodic fiction), but became the most successful webisodic to date.
Expanding on his dream idea with the help of three friends, Zakarin convinced Fattal & Collins to invest in the idea. Launched in June 1995, Scott and his cohorts became instant celebrities.
It's hard not to sound like a Hollywood pitch artist when describing the new genre of entertainment that Zakarin and his cohorts created: The Spot could best be described as MTV's "Real World" crossed with NBC's "Friends", written as a journal. Readers went "behind the scenes" and read the daily personal entries by The Spot's fictional inhabitants. The line between reality and fiction was neatly blurred by Zakarin and his crew; some of the "house members" were the writers, some were models hired for the roles.
The number of people that "tuned in" daily was staggering, even by today's standards - depending on who you talk to, it ranged from 80,000 to 160,000 "hits" a day. In hindsight, many of the people involved attributed its success to interactivity; for example, a discussion on the fan boards at the site could result in overnight plot changes or twists. For a mass media product, it was a revolutionary concept. Some fans became exceedingly loyal because of this interactivity - to this day, on its third anniversary the self-proclaimed Spotfans gathered in LA in homage.
The new genre that emerged out of their startling success was quickly copied. In January 1996, a webisodic by the name of The East Village was featured in an article in Entertainment Weekly; a sign of the genre's success. Linked with an ad agency in New York, The East Village boasted an annual budget of $200,000 US, and though it was in many ways a knock-off of The Spot, it was a slicker, better product (in my opinion). More interesting than its roots or its budget is the fact that its creator launched it with no adverstisers lined up at all. His plan was to gather advertisers after the Village was rolling: to establish a market on hype alone.
For The Spot, an almost Shakespearean hubris resulted in its eventual downfall, one that has arguably collapsed the burgeoning genre. Sheri Herman, a former cable-TV programming executive, was brought in by Fattal & Collins to expand the operation and build a larger company around webisodics. Zakarin and Herman clashed; Zakarin and his team left in January 1996 to create another webisodic, Grape Jam.
Herman built American Cybercast, touted as the first Internet "network". Despite losing Zakarin, the staff grew from 15 to a peak of 60. Cybercast featured shows such as the Eon-4 (perhaps the first Science fiction webisodic), The Pyramid (a paranoid business conspiracy), and several smaller shows featuring Hollywood talent such as Dave Thomas (of SCTV/Grace Under Fire fame), Mark Mothersbaugh (formerly of the new age band Devo), and RuPaul (just plain formerly).
Like any good tragedy, this story ends with death, albeit a virtual one. One year and a stunning six million dollars later, American Cybercast filed for bankruptcy. They paired down to all but two shows, and dropped their staff to 25, but it was too late.
The short story is that American Cybercast expanded too quickly, that they counted too heavily on the success of webisodics. For a brief span of time, it appeared that under the right conditions a webisodic could pull the much sought after 18-30 demographic away from the television set. Now imagine spending $250, 000+ for even one episode of a mediocre sitcom, compared to an annual budget of $250, 000 for the best webisodic in existence. . .and you can see the attraction for the Hollywood crowd. Yet the field never really generated the revenues to support the Hollywood style budgets purportedly paid by American Cybercast.
The Spot died six months later, on 6/6/97, its Second Anniversary.
The East Village is MIA ; Even their domain name has been sold. Zakarin and co.'s Grape Jam is finished, though they moved on to create the AOL sponsored Entertainment Asylum ezine. On the old American Cybercast servers there now sits a website about Sergio Aragones Groo the Wanderer. Madeline's Mind, one of the first webisodics to use a Macromedia Shockwave plug-in, is also missing, though it, too, was touted as revolutionary. They say there are no more cybersoaps on The Microsoft Network, but since you have to pay to get in, I can't even prove there were any there to begin with (there were, and they, too, are long gone.)
With the death of American Cybercast and the aforementioned corporate-sponsored cybersoaps, it seems that the genre itself has died, perhaps before its time. While there are still over 100 links to webisdocs listed on Yahoo!, even the "guide to web episodic," Epiguide, is now defunct. Is the genre truly dead? Or is it awaiting revival in the hands of smaller, smarter individuals?