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COMPUTERS : Hot 'Spot' Is Cyber-Place to Be : With a plot somewhere between 'Melrose Place' and MTV's 'Real World,' it may be the first episodic drama on the Internet.

August 06, 1995|Tracy Johnson | Tracy Johnson is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer. and

It's a virtual hangout where almost anything can happen.

Raucous parties rage all night. Romance sizzles among the roommates. Hollywood wanna-bes pass through wearing feather boas and it's rumored that a former landlord was wearing a dress when he drowned in the bathtub 40 years ago.

The site is a seven-bedroom beach house in Santa Monica, home to three women and two men. Each is an aspiring something-or-other and a member of Generation X. They admit all visitors.

Grab a computer and drop in.

Welcome to "The Spot." Launched two months ago by Fattal & Collins, a Marina del Rey-based advertising agency owned by Grey Advertising, it's a funky hybrid of soap opera and CD-ROM game, and is touted as the first episodic drama on the Internet. The plot is something of a cross between Fox's "Melrose Place" and MTV's "The Real World," except that here the audience can interact with the characters and influence developments.

With nearly 1.5 million server requests per week, "The Spot" is already one of the most visited sites on the World Wide Web (address: ).

The idea for "The Spot" came from Scott Zakarin and Troy Bolotnick, employees at Fattal & Collins who were searching for ways to conduct advertising in cyberspace when Zakarin had an epiphany about a legendary beach house filled with debauchery. He concluded that if this house was made into a soap opera for the Internet where the audience had the ability to participate in the experience, a new medium of entertainment and marketing could evolve.

"When we were looking at the Net, we determined that something was missing," Zakarin said. "There was nothing compelling about pure information. We wanted to come up with something cool, and this has surpassed our expectations."

Film student Tara Hartwick is the lead character and the spark plug of "The Spot." She lives with an eclectic group of people including womanizer Lon Oliver, bookworm Carrie Seaver, the landlord Jeff Benton, model Michelle Foster and Spotnik, a 32-year-old Cyberian husky. The housemates have their differences and each has their own group of friends whom they bring into the plot.

Each day the characters file a journal entry of about three pages, including color photos, describing what's happening in their lives. Michelle asks for advice on how to get rid of her brother who wants to visit, Carrie writes about how her boss is sexually harassing her, and Tara and Lon weep openly about their love lives.

The audience reads the latest entries by signing on from their personal computers. But their involvement doesn't stop there. They can send e-mail to cast members, participate in live chat rooms with the characters and discuss the latest developments with other fans on a "Spot" bulletin board.

'S pot" fans attack Lon about his attitude toward women and give Tara advice about her crush on Jeff. They've told Carrie, whose sexuality has yet to be revealed, that she's too naive. And one viewer even asked Michelle to pose in a bikini in front of the refrigerator with a strawberry because he thought the episodes were written in advance without audience input. She did.

To keep things interesting, the housemates have promised not to read each other's entries or mail. Viewers, however, jump at the chance to spread gossip by e-mailing their favorite characters to let them know what the other housemates are saying.

"We never anticipated that viewers would do that," Zakarin said. "But it's really added to the plot."

The characters at "The Spot" are played by Kristin Herold, Armando Valdes-Kennedy and Tim Abell--who are actors--and by two Fattal & Collins employees, Kristen Dolan and Laurie Plaksin, who is also an actress. The cyberstars write their own scripts, pose for photos and answer the 300 pieces of e-mail received from more than 30 countries per day.

Currently, "The Spot" runs commercial-free but there are plans to implement advertising. Fattal & Collins wanted to test the waters of this new medium and establish a following before adding promotional material. The details haven't been worked out yet, but the agency hopes to avoid being intrusive about it. Separate icons might be set up so that if someone was interested in, say, a dress that Tara was wearing, they could click there for more details.

Producers of "The Spot" said that when it comes to commercials, they have an advan tage over television because "The Spot" has a direct link with its audience. E-mail has made it easier to track the viewership and collect market research information because viewers share personal information about themselves when writing to cast members. The producers know their demographic is 90% male, ranges in age from 22-28, is intelligent and mostly taps into "The Spot" on weekdays when they are at work.

T he response to "The Spot" has sent Fattal & Collins back to the drawing board. There are plans to produce five new programs, including a cyberdrama and a detective comedy. The agency has absorbed all costs for "The Spot" but is talking with several media companies about joining in the new sites. Executive Russell Collins estimates that the cost to produce one year of "The Spot" is equivalent to producing one episode of "ER"--which would put it in the $1-million range.

While it may seem like a gamble, Collins is confident that advertising on the Internet will soon be as successful as commercials are on television. "The Internet is the most powerful marketing tool on the planet," Collins said. "It's going to be the dominant medium in the future."

And it isn't too late to jump into "The Spot." By clicking through its menu, visitors have the opportunity to backtrack to previous installments, copy photos from "The Spot" photo album and read about the infamous history behind the beach house.

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