"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 April 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Serial Killing Time



At this stage in the docudrama,

the programming acumen of

Tartikoff or Spelling isn't

necessary to see that the

concept of entertainment on the

Web is in trouble. It's been

almost a year since The Spot

debuted, launching a frenzy of

speculation on the future of

serialized fiction, and hope to

those who'd attempt to duplicate

the timeworn formulas that play

so big on the small screen. But

the dust seems to have settled

on the esoap, and the flurry of

Hardy Boys-inspired stabs at

"traditional entertainment" has

shifted back to the more

catch-all category of "vaguely

diverting." Intuition would

suggest that what's good for the

goose is good for the gander,

but the lull in interest in mock

diaries and Netscape-enhanced

whodunits suggest this duck's

been fucked.



Like everything on the Web, new

applications are cursed with the

burden of recapitulating their

derivative histories, so the

episodic romance was naturally

followed by the potboiler.

Ferndale, the dubious mental

ward psychodrama, was only the

best promoted - dozens of daily

and weekly updated thrillers

have cropped up in the shadows.

From the same page as "The Net,"

some take the form of diary

entries, others straight

narratives, but sex and hacking

are the most obvious plot

devices. Techno 3, an otherwise

dim Die Hard-meets-Hackers-

during-Cinemax-After-Dark brew,

even throws in Latino awareness

amidst its pilfered screen shots

from Total Recall and Outbreak.


[Chiphead Harry]

The great unanswered question

lies not in the easily-dismissed

failures, but in the

never-realized masterpieces. If

Dostoyevski had a copy of

PageMill and a TCP/IP

connection, few would likely

notice. What hope does Whatever

Happened to Chiphead Harry?, a

moderately entertaining if

permanently inconspicuous serial

have? Throwing intruiging design

at the problem is a better

solution than garnishing thin

plots with Fractal Design Poser

shots, but as the download curve

skyrockets, the audience pool

starts resembling a shallow

but still-lethal bathtub. But

even if The Network pulls the

plug on The Red Hand Gang,

Murder Book, and Whodunit?, new

pulse-kickers will crop up in

their stead.


[The East Village]

There's nothing mysterious about

the specter of enthusiasm

surrounding episodics. If you

assume that most of the online

population simply ignores

straight news, anything over

2000 words, and design-heavy

efforts, you eliminate

newspapers and magazines as

likely inspiration. But if your

idea of the epitome of popular

programming is Melrose Place, it

makes more sense to wait out the

prevailing bandwidth anemia and

just rehash broadcast video when

the pipes bloat. Add in the

all-important concern with

regular traffic and the idea of

The East Village becomes more

profound with each passing

kilobyte. It does no good to

point out how empty-headed the

idea of today's Web competing

with TV is - with sponsor

dollars filling in on a fairly

permanent basis for far-fetched

subscription fees, TV is the

only game worth watching.


[The Red Hand Gang]

But if waiting for the bandwidth

to balloon is a nonsolution, the

alternative to lame dramas and

soporific thrillers is the old

standby, the "programming

community." In a post-Rheingold

world, the buzz on this concept

has levelled to a barely-audible

drone, but the terrible truth is

that the vision is dead-on. As

dull as they are popular, the

most reliably active areas of

the online world are the AOL

chat rooms (with the WELL, Echo,

and IRC conferences all placing

distant seconds in popularity,

if not vapidity). It's only when

you're cramped in a cheap movie

theater seat, or silently glued

to Must-See TV, or drifting into

Hour Number 4 of a mind-numbing

programming meeting that you

realize most people don't

understand that their own lives

are exactly as relevant as

Kramer's latest pratfall, just

not as entertaining.



The ventures that realize the

promise of serial fiction and

massive audience participation

will likely be about as sexy as

Magic: The Gathering, and just

as unlikely to grab the

cover of Wired. The meeting

ground between bawdy episodic

tales of espionage and the zorky

terrain of MUDs is Worlds, Inc.

with handguns. Just because the

revolution won't be televised,

doesn't mean it'll be any more

trenchant than Sliders.

courtesy of the Duke of URL