The Emmy-winning creators of "My So-Called Life" and "thirtysomething" are two of the biggest television names so far to unveil ambitious stand-alone projects for the Web.
Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick said Wednesday that they would produce 36 eight-minute episodes of a series called "quarterlife" that will debut Nov. 11 on MySpaceTV.com, the social-networking site MySpace's growing video page.
Herskovitz said the series would cost significantly more than any other Web effort to date but would not disclose details. The previous record might have been set last month, when a team of studio executives said they would spend $3 million on "Afterworld," a Web series in the U.S. that is being distributed on cable TV and mobile phones abroad.
"We've taken 20 years of experience in making TV and said, 'What is the minimum requirement to create something that doesn't compromise in terms of quality?' " Herskovitz said.
The series revolves around six creative people in their 20s, with a plot that includes an "overly truthful" video blog.
The venture is still something of a gamble. In its first three weeks on MySpace, the 130-episode "Afterworld" hasn't caught on as much as "Prom Queen," which is produced by former Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Michael Eisner's Tornante Co.
"If you create something cheaply enough, it's easy to make money," said Josh Bernoff, new-media analyst for Forrester Research. "But if you're going to start putting in acting talent and professional cinematographers, it's going to have to be pretty darn popular."
Like "Prom Queen" and "Afterworld," "quarterlife" will be available first on MySpace, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. It will then try to draw people to a website named for the series.
Although such rival social networks as Facebook.com are adding features, No. 1 MySpace is trying to become more of an entertainment destination.
As broadband penetration grows, so does online video. Three out of every four U.S. Internet users watched some online clips in July, and they averaged three hours of viewing in the month, according to comScore Inc. Playing the most videos by far were Google Inc. sites including YouTube with 2.5 billion, followed by Yahoo Inc. with 390 million and MySpace parent and News Corp. unit Fox Interactive Media Inc. with 298 million.
Episodes of "Prom Queen" have drawn more than 8 million views. "Afterworld" has yet to crack 500,000 views on MySpace, though early episodes on YouTube drew as many as 1 million. The first "Afterworld" episode has been shown more than 90,000 times on MySpace, but some other episodes have been seen fewer than 8,000 times.
Both of the other high-profile series have episodes around three minutes long, which is far more typical than the eight minutes planned for "quarterlife."
Herskovitz said his series started out as a pilot for ABC that wasn't picked up. Eight minutes is a typical TV span between commercials, and Herskovitz said he still thought in terms of hour-long segments.
"Afterworld" producer Stan Rogow, a former executive producer of the hit Disney series "Lizzie McGuire," warned that creating for the Web is "much harder" than he anticipated. The success that has come so far, Rogow said, is because the team crafts "each episode with a beginning, middle and end. We did not take a preexisting script and cut it up into eight-minute pieces."
"Afterworld" has yet to pick up any sponsors, making the foreign rights essential to the budget. Without a similar deal for "quarterlife," finding advertisers will be crucial. Assuming some buy short commercials before each episode begins, Bernoff said, the segments might need 15,000 viewers to break even.
"What's interesting here is the level of talent that's being applied," Bernoff said. "The problem is, it's easy to have a one-hit wonder. For this really to succeed, it has to be a channel you tune into on a regular basis."