In the new murder mystery series Prom Queen, the action begins when Ben, a star student-athlete, receives an anonymous text message predicting that he is going "2 kill the prom queen."
The show's fans, however, will learn his victim's fate not in hourlong episodes broadcast each week on their television screens, but in 90-second installments streamed daily on their computers, cell phones and iPods.
Produced by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, the series will premiere tonight on the popular Web site, MySpace. The new show is a forerunner of what Hollywood insiders call the next generation of entertainment programming: high-quality, original dramas and comedies made specifically for the Internet and other forms of digital distribution. The blossoming online video market is already valued at $20 billion annually, analysts say.
Prom Queen, which will be streamed in 80 short segments with weekly recap episodes, is not the first Internet drama - other online video series such as Sam Has 7 Friends andLonelygirl15 have established themselves as hits among millions of plugged-in teens and young adults. But Prom Queen is the first such show to be produced by a major industry player and to arrive fully sponsored by national advertisers.
"The show matters because it's Eisner, one of the biggest names in Hollywood, investing his money and experience in a series made for digital distribution," says Dianne Lynch, new-media expert and dean of the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College.
Prom Queen is the contemporary equivalent of The Jazz Singer (the first feature film with spoken dialogue), she adds.
Eisner is not the only old-media heavyweight betting on the future of high-quality Web programming. Last week, for example, archrival networks NBC and Fox formed a joint entertainment Web site intended to compete with YouTube by offering network-quality programming specifically produced for online streaming.
Depending upon whom one asks, these moves mark an exciting new era in Web entertainment - or the closing of an online frontier that once promised anyone with ambition, a digital camera and a computer the chance to find an instant audience.
"That's the history of every new medium in the 20th century, from radio to cable TV. First, great promise of grass-roots democracy - and then corporate control," says University of Maryland media economist Douglas Gomery. "Why wouldn't you expect the Internet to move in that same direction?"
Thus far, the typical online viewer fits the demographic most coveted by advertisers: young males ages 12 to 34 who are inclined to try new technology and who are heavy media consumers.
Although these tech-savvy young men are the demographic most resistant to television's appeal, they make up the majority of the 123 million consumers in the United States now streaming video each month, according to comScore Video Metrix, the industry's leading Internet audience measurement service.
That's why Google agreed to pay $1.65 billion in October for YouTube, the Web destination most popular with those streamers, point out analysts.
In addition, there are at least a dozen Web sites that are potentially worth as much as YouTube, which is why even the most conservative estimates of the online video market start at about $20 billion. The trick to cashing in is finding the right content.
"That's where the money is: finding the kinds of storytelling and narratives - the content - that will draw consumers, especially young ones, to your online site," says Gomery.
"There are tens of billions of dollars to be made for those who get it right. That's why you see NBC and Rupert Murdoch and Viacom and Eisner and all the other Hollywood giants now focusing their efforts in trying to find the narratives that will be to the Internet what I Love Lucy, Gunsmoke and The Milton Berle Show were to early TV."
That hunt - for new programming that will replace or complement today's homemade, grainy, YouTube-style videos - is a driving force for media corporations, says Vivi Zigler, executive vice president of NBC Digital Entertainment and New Media.
"When you think of where we've been in online video, it's been short clips about almost anything - and the stranger, the better," Zigler says.
"Certainly one of the reasons for our new joint venture with Fox is the belief that there's also a strong appetite for quality video online and quality content that can be consumed en masse."
Eisner shares the conviction that there is gold in programs that go beyond YouTube's grassroots, mostly reality-based imagery.
"I'm not interested in reality, variety, or user-generated programming in the sense of nonprofessional clips," Eisner says, describing the agenda of his new independent production studio, Vuguru, the maker of Prom Queen.
"What I am interested in is good storytelling that features emotionally driven characters. ... In the past few years, the development of innovative digital media technologies has outpaced the creation of great content. We're going to provide that content for the evolving media landscape."
Comedy Central, the home of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, is one of the cable channels that have led the charge onto the Internet with original programming targeted at young men.
"That's our audience - that young male demo," says Lou Wallach, senior vice president of original programming and development at Comedy Central.
"They have iPods, cell phones and PDAs with video capabilities. When they sit down at night, TV is on in the background a few feet away as they sit at their desk or on the couch with their laptops and desktops on as well."
Among the cutting edge offerings that in recent months have drawn young men to comedycentral.com is The Watch List, a show featuring comedy sketches from a group of Arab-American comedians touring the country as a revue titled the Axis of Evil.
"With the right kind of online programming, getting that young male demo is no longer a theory for us: It's a reality," says Wallach.
"The guys are already online. Get the good content, and they will come to your online site."
Doug Tolerton, a junior at Goucher College, is a fan. A typical night of "TV viewing" for the 21-year-old communications major and his girlfriend consists of sitting in a dorm room, streaming an episode of the Fox network's anti-terrorist thriller 24 on their laptops.
Tolerton estimates that 50 percent of his "TV viewing" these days is done online - a significant increase in just a year. He attributes the change to technical improvements in Web sites and the explosion of major network and cable series that are offered online free.
"With my schedule, I often don't have time to catch a favorite show when it airs," says Tolerton, who in addition to attending class, works part-time, volunteers at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and writes for the campus paper, The Quindecim.
"In the past, I would use various back channels to find episodes of 24 on the Web after they aired on Fox," Tolerton says. Sometimes he'd wind up watching bootleg versions of 24 with Chinese subtitles.
Now the Baltimore native streams episodes of the drama offered on MySpace. The hit series is available there, because Murdoch's News Corporation owns both MySpace and Fox.
Lending credence to Eisner's belief in the power of character-driven programs, Tolerton says his online viewing is determined mostly by the "kinds of characters" that a show offers.
On the other hand, he says, he is not a big fan of dramas told in the super-short segments of Prom Queen.
"To watch a show regularly, I have to be attracted to a character. The characters have to be compelling," he says.
"I'll probably check out Prom Queen, but not in the 90-second bites they're offering each day. I'll probably watch the weekly recap to get a better feel for the characters, and then decide if it's worth my time."
Though most consumers still draw distinctions among DVDs, TV and Web TV, those differences are rapidly disappearing, she says.
"Pretty soon, we're going to have one big screen, and all kinds of content is going to come through that screen. And we're not going to care where the content comes from as it long as it entertains us," Lynch says.