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Industry StandardThe Internet Economy has a rotten memory. Just a year ago, push software products like PointCast were considered duds. Now AOL, Lycos and other companies are developing nonbrowser-based applications that stay open on your desktop and feed you stock quotes, chat and Net radio. Sound familiar?
Similarly, media and technology companies have begun to create and fund Web entertainment ventures. Warner Brothers Online is building an Internet portal called Entertaindom, and Microsoft has invested in Digital Entertainment Network, which makes short TV-like programs for viewing on a PC.
However, content has been a dirty word since e-commerce became king. John Geirland and Eva Sonesh Kedar's Digital Babylon explains why. The blow-by-blow account of Web entertainment's messy beginnings is a must-read -- especially for those just now jumping on the Net content bandwagon.
The book examines the first experiment in Web entertainment -- the Spot. Erected in 1995 by frustrated L.A. advertising exec Scott Zakarin, the Spot was a "Webisodic," a daily updated site that belonged to a fictional Santa Monica beach house of five twentysomethings.
Through diary entries and photographs, the group spilled the details of their soap-opera lives and drew fans and positive press. As detailed by Geirland and Kedar, the site marked the dawn of Web content. Soon AOL, Microsoft and major movie studios would follow the Spot's lead: For instance, Microsoft created "programs" for its Microsoft Network and AOL built Entertainment Asylum, neither of which succeeded.
On a shoestring budget, Zakarin and his buddies created the Spot after hours at the Fattal-Collins ad agency in Marina del Rey, Calif. But when press clips and fan e-mail started rolling in, Fattal-Collins management decided to create a new company around the site, with plans for more Webisodics and an IPO. The company, American Cybercast, never got too far. After ramping up the head count, seeing Zakarin and others depart and spitting out several anemic Webisodics, the company filed for Chapter 11.
Geirland and Kedar describe such failed efforts as a result of a culture clash between wildly different groups. There were "the ponytails" -- frustrated Hollywood creatives who could barely use e-mail but saw the Web as a place to let their bright ideas shine. There were "the suits" -- dealmakers who saw content as a way to draw traffic, as long as it wasn't too expensive or time-intensive to create. Then there were "the geeks" -- techie types who dug the challenges of programming audio, video and animation for the Web and wanted the technology to take center stage.
Digital Babylon's insider account of these power struggles is full of great gossip. For example, the authors managed to acquire a diagram created by "ponytail" Bob Bejan, hired to head up MSN's programming efforts. The diagram purported to show how "left-brain" technical elements would eventually converge with the "right-brain" creative elements to produce a "mastery of the medium" of online entertainment.
The book reproduces the graphic, then goes on to describe how Bejan distributed the feel-good message to Microsoft employees, only to be ridiculed behind his back by geeks who felt content's real goal was to show off Microsoft's technology.
Web entertainment hopefuls take heed: History repeats itself.