LAST week MySpace debuted its first original Web series, "Roommates," a new scripted reality show that places four gorgeous young women together in a SoCal house, along with a reality TV crew. Over its life span of 45 three-minute episodes, the show will encourage viewers to interact with its characters via MySpace's social network -- hinting that by doing so, viewers can influence the arc of the story. Also influencing the arc of the story will be the Ford Focus, a character in "Roommates" and its title sponsor.
NBC.com's "Coastal Dreams," released on the Web earlier this month, employs a similar conceit. This time, instead of four bombshells moving into a plush coastal abode, it's only two. ("May there be a wealth of guys who are hot," toasts Stacy to Zoe, as they exult in their hot richness.) A little unfortunately, the viewer is forced to watch the same 30-second Stayfree Maxi Pads commercial before every 2 1/2 -minute episode.
Entering the online fray, MSN.com has tapped Craig Robinson, who plays Darryl the droll warehouse guy in NBC's "The Office." "Mr. Robinson's Driving School," has a simple story -- Craig must compete with his driving-instructor nemesis to win the girl, a car and ownership of the local drivers ed academy. Incidentally, the car is a new Volvo C30 hatchback.
Not that it's time to defenestrate your TiVo quite yet, but in these and other short, cheap and heavily sponsored online series, the entertainment industry's heavyweights are finally wading into the bog of original Web programming.
It's a scary and amorphous medium -- so nascent it doesn't even have a one-word name in an era where even podcasting and texting have reached media puberty. Whatever you call them, there are hundreds of them scattered all across the net. Scattered like dust motes, because how many have you actually seen?
"Lonelygirl15," probably. Michael Eisner's "Prom Queen," maybe. How about CBS.com's excellent "Clark and Michael," starring "Superbad" phenom Michael Cera? It's really good. On TV, you can flip around during prime time and probably find a new show that's worth watching. But on the Internet, there is no prime time -- only all the time. Channel-flipping becomes a chore too when you don't know how many channels there are, and never will. Without costly ad spots between the shows you already watch, the ways to discover new programs are limited.
Internet TV is a morass of a thousand fragments. There is no central repository or catalog of shows. TV Guide and iTunes list plenty of broadcast shows repackaged for the Web -- but that's a different animal. Savvier types may know about Joost, the sleek application that allows you to watch on-demand TV from your computer, but the offerings are limited.
What about all these other Web programming networks? Heavy. Bebo. Blip.tv. Super Deluxe. My Damn Channel. Channel101. All of them are online video platforms that offer original Web series. Black20? NationalBanana? Anyone?
The operative question may be whether Hollywood will be pleased enough with its initial Web dalliances to go for Round 2. (MySpace's "Roommates" scored an impressive 300,000 views in its first four days.)
A partial answer may come from the fate of "quarterlife," the much ballyhooed Web-only series from Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, the hit factory behind "thirtysomething" and "My So-Called Life." The show premieres next month on MySpace, and its performance is likely to be a bellwether for future online programming.
In the meantime, how about a few webisodes of "Murder Town," a hilarious half-animated series on Channel101.com -- which has been in the webisode game as long as anyone? In "Murder Town" everyone's a convicted murderer, including the sheriff. And now he's taking the law into his own hands.
Or you could try Super- Deluxe.com, the online comedy network owned by Turner Broadcasting System. SuperDeluxe lists almost 70 original shows in its directory, including "Derek and Simon," a creation of Bob Odenkirk. The show has funny acting and is overflowing with cameos -- Chris Kattan of "Saturday Night Live" fame, Cera and Steve Agee, the scruffy gay friend from "The Sarah Silverman Program." But after a two-month run this summer, the show stopped posting episodes. The 13th and final installment scored a meager 20,000 views.
COMEDY and babes have been the most dependable formulas for online video success so far, and Heavy.com does its best to mix them, plus a dash of kung fu, cars and cartoons. Tellingly, Heavy's most popular video stars adult film icon Ron Jeremy (the site's technology reviewer) playing the video game "Guitar Hero" with a teenage boy.
Some good stuff gets lost in the crowd too. "Break a Leg," an edgy and entertaining comedy on blip.tv, should have a bigger audience. It's the story of a young writer-director, David Penn (played in best meta fashion by the show's real co-writer-director, Yuri Baranovsky), engaged in a difficult and possibly fatal quest to get his sitcom made. Despite appearing on blip.tv, Metacafe, YouTube and iTunes, the show has not appeared on the mainstream radar.
Seriously, though, how many video sites can the average person monitor? My answer: one, plus or minus one. Take a look at your bookmark bar -- how many video sites? Surely not enough to cover all the bases. You'd need another five or six, at least.
Anyway, may I be excused now, please? I need to go see what Ron Jeremy is saying about the iPhone.