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Look. Look. See the Spot Run. Look. Look. See the Spot Grow. Look. Look. See the Future of Soaps.

May 12, 1996|Patrick E. Cole | Patrick E. Cole is a Los Angeles-based correspondent for Time Magazine

The scene is another location shoot: A cast of seven with Westside L.A. good-looks strikes a series of poses. The photo crew is lean. There are no lights, no vans, just a 35mm camera and a Sony Handycam. Here in this pock-marked shopping center parking lot are the stars from the biggest show on the cyber screen, and yet no one knows who they are. Near a takeout restaurant, the show's producer snaps pictures as the sun sinks behind a Ralphs grocery store.

They are hamming it up--leaning together shoulder to shoulder, all smiles. Click.

Faces together, cheek-to-cheek. Click.

One playfully shoves the other. Click.

A few shoppers glance at them, but no one is staring. Suddenly, a man in a Pendleton shirt and jeans struts to a nearby automatic teller machine, almost interrupting the session. "Yo," says the man. "are you those guys from '90210'?"

"No," says one bewildered cast member.

Silence. Then the rest of them burst out in laughter. "Can you believe that?" says consulting producer Scott Zakarin with a grin, "he asked us if we're from '90210'!" Santa Monica 90405 is more like it. If you surf cyberspace and call up you know Em Caldwell, Carrie Seaver, Lon Oliver, Michelle Foster, Tomeiko Pierce, Jeff Benton and Audrey Shire--the characters from "The Spot," the first soap opera on the World Wide Web. Each day, thousands of computer users launch their Web browsers to find out the latest happenings at a fictional beach house in Santa Monica. While the cast members have no endorsements and no offers to be on the cover of Vanity Fair, "The Spot" claims fans in Oslo and Prague as well as in Oxnard and Pasadena.

Once you hang out at "The Spot" for about a week or so, it's clear that the serial is a day in the life of six Los Angeles men and women struggling to find themselves and coping in the big city with their relationships. Though fictional, they are like real people with real hopes and dreams and real problems that you might bump into at "The Viper Club" or on the Third Street Promenade. Lon, for example, is almost an L.A. stereotype, the struggling actor who is also vulnerable when it comes to love. Yet he is also well aware that he has no ambition in life. Carrie is the East Coast transplant who comes to L.A. and finds it both interesting and troubling at times. Tomeiko is an aspiring singer trying to find out who she is and involved in a seesaw relationship with character Jeff Benton. In short, it's "Friends" meets MTV's "The Real World."

Says Zakarin, who created all the characters: "They are living in a place that's a legend, and it's almost their jobs to have an exciting and adventurous life. You know what they are thinking, and you know they are profoundly affected by the outside world. It's more real than television and less real than your life."

But more than just creating celebrities in cyberspace, the pioneering Net drama has ushered in a revolution. "The Spot" is an amalgam of storytelling forms--journal writing integrated with video and sound clips, all at the click of a mouse. Experts initially thought that the Internet was hardly the medium that would produce the first generation of cyber-couch potatoes. After all, why sit at a computer screen watching a soap opera when television seems to have perfected the formula already?

But it's "The Spot" 's interactive possibilities, say staff members and others connected with the show, that makes it so different.

Like TV soaps and their letter-writing fans, many of the estimated 35,000 to 40,000 folks who log onto the show each day offer feedback in the form of e-mail, telling the cast members who they should fall in love with or when it's time to get a new job or when to throw someone out of the house. And sometimes those suggestions end up in the daily plots. In addition, a daily feature called "Name That Spot" invites viewers to come up with silly captions for photos of the show's characters.

"That's what the [TV] networks are learning now," says Zakarin. "We have broken the rules of dramatic structure. They're already calling us the granddaddy of cybersoaps!" And "The Spot" is a mere 11 months old.

The Web site prodigy has won the Webby Award for "Cool Site of the Year" given by InfiNet, a Norfolk, Va.-based publishing company and Internet service provider--a remarkable achievement considering there are more than 100,000 Web sites on the Internet. Hence, "The Spot" has led to Web clones such as "Ferndale," a story set in a psychiatric clinic, and "East Village," a serial based in New York City. It has even led to a parody called "The Squat."

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