Finding Lucy

by Eric Oldrin

Courtesy of Art Today.

In October 1951, America saw the pilot episode of a simple show called I Love Lucy. With only five thousand dollars of their own money, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez created what turned out to be an instant smash hit -- a show which never ranked lower than third in popularity during its entire six-year run. In fact, I Love Lucy could easily be considered the "killer application" that inspired millions of Americans to purchase a television set. It's true. In 1951 fewer than 10 million households were watching TV; by 1954 as many as 50 million people were tuning in.1

I Love Lucy captured the heart of its audience by embracing television as a unique entertainment experience -- as something other than radio or film. Early television tended to mirror radio. It took shows like I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners to define this medium -- to create an entirely new entertainment experience.

In Need of Identity
Fifty years later, we're at a similar crossroads. Dozens of productions have cropped up in this space we call the Internet. There have been a few successes and a few casualties but most would agree, we've yet to see our I Love Lucy. What will it take to create the next "killer application" -- an experience that undeniably proves the Web as an entertainment medium in its own right? Let's take a look at some of today's popular trends as a point of departure on our way to answering this difficult question.

Sister Randy, featured on Dotcomix, heads for television with BBC America. © Dotcomix.

Like the early pioneers of television, it seems that many Web entertainers have chosen to replicate the format of their predecessors. The majority of today's online distributors tend to present very linear content -- stories that would be better if broadcast on television. In many cases, this is a core tenet of their business strategy.

For some companies, the Web serves as a low-cost test bed for linear content and a Web show that spins off to television is heralded as a great triumph. There can be value in this strategy of creating made-for-TV Web content. For instance, BBC America has taken on Mondo Media's Thugs on Film and Dotcomix's Sister Randy. But in the context of our discussion -- that of inventing a new entertainment experience in its own right -- there's something inherently flawed with this kind of opportunistic creativity.

Why Bother?
It renders a sort of dispassionate art -- created as a means, not an ends -- rather than the I Love Lucy experience that defined its own medium. For these creators, the Web is an audition, not the main attraction. Even the best linear Web shows, the one's lucky enough break into the big leagues of analog entertainment -- like UrbanEntertainment's Undercover Brother -- seem truly at home only when released from their digital bondage.

The result is a slew of short-form animated and live-action productions thinly veiled as Web shows but clearly suited for television. The download is sometimes painfully long, the quality is often very poor and most importantly, the format is consistently uninspired, leaving the viewer wondering why they didn't just turn on the TV. "There is a very small percentage of content on the Web today that actually utilizes the medium fully," says Tony Lopez, executive site producer at Shockwave. "This is partly because there are so many cross-over content producers who came from linear entertainment and it's partly because it is not a simple thing to do."

It's understandable why so many Web productions have followed the existing linear entertainment archetype. On the other end of the spectrum, there are several non-linear debacles that take existing narratives and force them to become interactive. This simply does not work. It too often breaks that essential suspension of disbelief necessary in any good storytelling.

BBC America picked up another hot Web property with Mondo Media's Thugs on Film. © Mondo Media.

Finding A Voice
These early experiments have been key in the evolution of the "killer application" but they also tend to confuse the issue. Many of these shows have given Web entertainment a bad name and in the creator community have misrepresented the true essence of interactivity. "At the outset, a nascent entertainment medium tends to simply repackage existing forms of expression from more established media. Eventually, the new medium will find its own voice and will discover how to take full advantage of its own set of unique attributes," says Todd Shaiman, product manager at Shockwave. But this will take time.

We're beginning to see signs that the Internet is exploring its own form of expression. Some hits have emerged -- not from the virtual television pitches or from shows that simply slap a quiz onto the end of an episode -- but from the Joe Cartoons, the Jib Jabs and the Flinchs, content producers that take "full advantage [of the Web's] unique attributes," without sacrificing the integrity of their narrative.

So, what are these unique attributes and how does one harmonize them within existing narrative forms? Lopez continues, "True interactive Web content is part CD-ROM, part console game and many parts good storytelling." Interactivity is a catch-all word that is often used to describe the nature of the Internet. It means competing, playing, inventing, building, sharing, communing, speaking, listening -- it is the essence of communication and community. With interactivity, a story is told as much by the audience as it is by the author.

It's a daunting task. Where television gave our artists a black, white and gray color palette -- the Internet gives them the rainbow and a few ultraviolet colors to boot. There's almost too many choices. The struggle today is to understand and utilize all the interactive opportunities at hand without breaking the suspension of disbelief so essential in our stories.

1 How Hits Happen, Winston Farrel - quoting David Halberstam's book The Fifties


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