Why Cybersoaps Don’t Clean Up

Adam L. Penenberg
Forbes.com, 09.12.97

THE INVENTION OF RADIO GAVE BIRTH TO THE FIRST ON-the-air serialized dramas, and when television first began its broadcast day, 15-minute serial dramas were an integral part of the program schedule. This tradition almost guaranteed that somehow, someway, soap operas would make their way onto the Internet. They have, and one was The Spot, which billed itself as the world’s first episodic web series.

Back in February 1996, I joined seven other professional writers in the creation of a cybersoap-also called a cyberserial, episodic web show or online drama-that details the lives, loves and neuroses (especially neuroses) of a group of New Yorkers in group therapy. The idea was to create an evolving literary form on the net, to blur the lines between reality and fiction, to delve into adult topics like drug abuse, rape, abortion and misogyny. Most importantly, we wanted the writing to be top-notch, since our feeling was that most web-based entertainment was shoddy.

We weren’t the only ones to enter the cyberfray. The Spot’s early popularity had spawned a whole slew of online shows, with names like The East Village, 475 Madison Avenue, Ferndale and Eon 4. We all hoped that with the growth in cyberserials, advertisers would view these online dramas as a sophisticated channel for delivering ads. The Spot, which at its height claimed 35,000 visitors a day, had inked deals with Sony Pictures and Toyota, and was weaving these products into its story lines. Naively, we thought we’d cash in, too.

It took us a year to create all the characters (each the responsibility of its creator), concoct the main story line, write a number of group therapy sessions and diary entries and design a web site. And over this period, some interesting characters emerged. There was Gloria, pregnant at 40, careening from one crisis to another, and Jimmy Rudd, a pulp author with writer’s block whose agent forces him to join group therapy.

Then there was Celeste, who was dating via the personals, and Mike who was on parole. And Beth the actress, Will the computer geek, Zoe the New York Times reporter and Adam-that’s me-a jazz musician in career crisis, battling a drug problem.

Last January, we launched; almost immediately after, we started getting heaps of press.

First, The New York Times ran a half-page profile of us in its Sunday City section, then The New York Daily News chimed in with a massive three-page spread. Netscape listed us in their hot sites of the day. Entertainment Weekly, Time Out and People Online followed with flattering reviews. It was PR nirvana. We half expected advertisers to rattle our phones off the hook.

Why? Because, as Internet-based entertainment goes, soaps (so-called because in the early days of radio and TV they were sponsored by soap companies) seemed the perfect online vehicle for attracting repeat visitors. Although web sites dedicated to news guarantee repeat traffic, since news, therefore content, changes daily, most other web sites function as static information dumps. From TV and radio’s early days, advertisers have always had an affinity for the soap format and were the first to figure out how to create programming that pulls in eyes and ears. We figured the same thing would happen online. We were wrong.

For advertising on the web to be effective, people have to keep coming back. But we discovered that online soaps are plagued by built-in structural problems that seem to discourage return visits. There simply is no easy way to spin a yarn over the web, to create a compelling story that unfolds slowly, deliciously, week after week. What worked for Charles Dickens-the serialized literary form-and Melrose Place, doesn’t translate well to the web. Character and story development require space, but on the net, you don’t have that luxury, since netizens are accustomed to shorter bursts of prose.

Most soaps, like The Spot and East Village, avoided this by relying on a format heavy on diary entries. But we decided to approach the structure problem differently, opting to use group therapy sessions to advance our story. At the time, it seemed a good idea, but the sessions ended up being too text- and graphics-laden. A six-page script served only to lose us viewers; indeed, after we analyzed our hit counts, we realized we were losing a high percentage of readers between pages one and two of a session, and even more after page three. Few would read all the way to the end, yet site users would wade through literally dozens of diaries in a sitting (especially if the diary title had something in it about sex, drugs or dating). Throughout our first season we continually shortened the scripts, but we never did figure out a way to adequately solve the problem.

There were a number of reasons why our sessions, the linchpin of our stories, were costing us viewers. Of course, many of them could have been turned off by the very idea of a soap centered on psychoanalysis. Or perhaps, they didn’t cotton to our writing.

But I always thought the problem had more to do with the shape of the sessions. Each was written in a quasi movie script form, weaving dialog from eight characters, and readers found themselves overwhelmed by words spouting out of the mouths of characters they couldn’t immediately identify. When we added pictures and graphics, to ensure that readers got a visual sense of the characters, downloads took forever. We were caught between relying too heavily on text, which anyone who has read text on screen knows can be brutal on the eyes, and graphics, which choked people’s browsers.

As a result, although we had days where we received tens of thousands of visitors to the site, we quickly settled into a pattern where several hundred users a day visited The Couch–not enough to attract deep-pocketed advertisers.

But that wasn’t the biggest obstacle: Entering the world of financially strapped Internet startup companies was.

When we launched, we did so with Cyborganic, a San Francisco startup with an online publishing arm. But almost immediately after we signed a contract with them, the company encountered severe financial problems, almost de rigueur for the online world.

Instead of marketing The Couch, and its sister soap, Geek Serial, also published by Cyborganic, the company’s CEO was spending all his time trying to keep his sinking cybership afloat, and out of bankruptcy.

As a result, we were forced to seek out other possible publishers, but they were scared off by the sinking fortunes of The Spot, whose publisher, American Cybercast, had declared Chapter 11 in the Spring, with The Spot tanking shortly afterward. When this flagship of online dramas went down, so did enthusiasm for the genre.

As for The Couch, we plan to return from hiatus later this fall, with a new season of material. But looking back now, it’s a wonder we thought we could make money as independent creators of a cyberdrama. Luckily, we received most of the tech support and infrastructure free; same went for the writing, editing and promotion of the site. If not for this, we estimate that we would be more than $200,000 in debt (the site alone would have cost more than $100,000 to design and maintain, according to Couch producer, David Steuer).

Now there’s a new generation of cybersoaps on the web, designed as marketing tools, dramatic web-based commercials, if you will. Ralph Lauren sponsors, while Godiva Chocolates has just launched . Both of these sites border on being advertorials; they attracted the advertising before they produced the drama, which is closer to the original TV and radio soap opera business model: the soaps are sponsored by a single company instead of being produced independently.

These new web shows are not making money either, but they’re not supposed to. Although sex, sports and gambling may be big business on the Internet–albeit dwarfed by their offline cousins-web-based entertainment has a long way to go before anyone involved with it will end up on the Forbes Top 40 richest entertainers list.

Copyright 1997 Adam L. Penenberg (penenberg.com)