The material ranges from episodic "shows" that will be posted every week to interactive fiction, including imaginary characters that exchange e-mail with users. There will be games, minidocumentaries and live-action short films, as well.
The subject matter, aimed largely at college students with access to high-speed campus Internet connections, pushes the limits of taste -- and the offerings must overcome technical limitations and the currently small audience for online entertainment.
Romp.com is launching a new game called "Avoid Commitment," which a player wins by hurling a martini at a temptress and then seducing her. Animation site Icebox.com has a series about a gay duck that lives with his boyfriend, called "Openly Gator." And Nibblebox.com is posting short films dedicated to muffins -- from a tin of green ones that zoom in from outer space to a baked-goods tree that kills off a pesky girl with a poisonous muffin.
"This is like the 1940s in television," said David Wertheimer, chairman and CEO of WireBreak Entertainment, a firm that creates and syndicates Web programs for other sites. "There's no standard for what works and doesn't work."
It's also make-or-break time for many of the startups, which are under pressure from investors and advertisers to prove they can draw an audience. An informal Media Metrix survey of sites focused on original audio-visual entertainment found just that seven had enough traffic to register in the firm's July reports.
But those have seen sharp growth: Macromedia Inc.'s Shockwave.com drew 5.7 million users in July, up from 207,000 a year ago, while Atom Corp.'s AtomFilms had 749,000, up from 247,000 a year ago. "Everybody's looking for real, viable examples of success," said Lynda Keeler, managing director at Redleaf Group, Inc., an Internet investment and operating firm.
Indeed, Web entertainment has a mixed history. Efforts by Microsoft Corp. and America Online Inc., among others, to translate TV-style shows to the Internet foundered a couple years ago. Recently, scrutiny has been intensified in light of the shuttering of Digital Entertainment Network and the recent scuttled merger talks between Ifilm Corp. and Pop.com, the long-delayed Web initiative backed by DreamWorks SKG and Imagine Entertainment.
Moreover, Web programming faces built-in technological limitations. Because most users have relatively slow Internet connections, they must watch the online episodes in tiny, sometimes-jerky boxes on their screens. The films, which cost up to $50,000 to make, compared with an average of about $850,000 to $2 million for a half-hour television episode, tend to be limited to a few minutes in length.
"People don't think of the Internet yet as entertaining them the way a television show or a movie does," said Kristen Harmeling, associate director at Yankelovich Partners, a marketing research firm.
Partly in order to work in this constricted format, many sites are focusing on animated, rather than live-action, programming. Besides "Queer Duck," Icebox Inc. will put out a cartoon parody of Fifties-era sitcoms in black and white, complete with a laugh track. Mondo Media, which syndicates Web programming, is creating a new online political cartoon called "This Modern World."
A murder mystery on the Z.com site, "Deadly Embrace," slows the pace even further. Users page through a series of still photographs that narrate the killing of a couple and the efforts to solve it. Web viewers can click on the photos to get clues, and record them in a digital "evidence log" that they can share with others online. They can also click on options to view suspect interrogations and witness testimony. "It requires some intellectual horsepower and participation," said Joe DiNunzio, CEO of Z.com Inc.
Perhaps the most important viewers for the entertainment sites are Web-savvy college students -- partly because they can tap into campus broadband connections.
A Forrester Research study of people between the ages 16 and 22 found they were 30 percent more likely to be online than the general U.S. population. While 24 percent of adults who are on the Internet regularly play online games and 12 percent download music files, the same stats for the high school and college crowd are 53 percent and 45 percent, respectively.
To grab their attention, many Web entertainment firms plan ambitious campus marketing campaigns, using everything from paid student representatives to contests aimed at fraternities. AtomFilms, for one, is sending the maker of one of its documentaries to 35 colleges -- along with a musician to play during screening -- to discuss the 13-minute film. Four amateur filmmakers will proceed them in a Volkswagen bus, posting their own short documentaries about the trip on the AtomFilms site.
Nibblebox.com, a unit of Enigma Media LLC, is helping college radio stations Webcast their programming on its site. In return, the stations promote the company's youth-focused slate of offerings. Also, the company displays work from young, mostly college-aged filmmakers.
Besides the muffin cartoons, the site will offer up "Spatula City," which features rock bands playing songs and cooking up dishes in the apartment of some University of Kansas students. One initial episode: a punk band called Sister Mary Rotten Crotch makes chili, chips and salsa with the show's hosts. "You'll even get to meet their moms!" Nibblebox promises, speaking of the hosts' mothers.
One possible problem is that so far, it's not clear what college students or anyone else prefers to watch online. Web sites aren't sure how often to put up new episodes. Some are posting their work every week, others biweekly or monthly. It's also not clear what days of the week or hours might turn out to be "prime time" for the Internet, or if there will ever be one. So the Web firms are unveiling their new content at times ranging from midnight to 7 p.m.
"Right now, everything is experimentation," said John Hegeman, a longtime film industry executive who now is president and CEO of Distant Corners Entertainment Group, which runs DistantCorners.com.
Several Web sites, including Hegeman's, are trying to narrow their focus to certain topics. DistantCorners, which offers science fiction, fantasy and horror, plans an interactive game called "inTerroRgation," in which the user questions a suspect using tools including brass knuckles, an electric cattle prod and pliers. If the player uses the devices in the wrong order, the character can die.
A rival site, USA Networks Inc.'s SciFi.com, is trying to draw consumers to the adventures of a character named "Dr. Zoom," who has been reduced to a brain in a jar and is waiting for a group of incompetent flunkies to make him a new body.
Another group of sites targets young men, using a mixture of games, girls and machines. TheThreshold.com, a unit of Threshold Entertainment, has about 20 new programs coming out this fall, including an animated series about a movie producer that uses the voice of talk show host Jerry Springer for an agent called the "Blue Jew."
Besides the martini-tossing game, Romp Inc. plans a game for Web-enabled cell phones called "DopeWars" in which users vie to become the biggest drug dealer in their city.