'Whodunit' close to being first on-line TV series

November 05, 1995|By Stephen Lynch | Stephen Lynch,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

April Dion is Hollywood's idea of a hacker. That is, a blond Sandra Bullock with a Rachel haircut, ripped jeans and a vicious pout.

She admits, peering over the top of her sunglasses, that she doesn't know anything about computers. Except one thing. Fans like to save her image from a previous on-line ad to their hard drives.

"My agent called and said: 'Did you hear? All these kids are downloading you,' " the 22-year-old says, making it sound dirty.

She smiles and saunters to lunch -- with any luck, the first sex symbol of episodic Internet.

Executive producer Dean Vallas certainly hopes so, as he films Ms. Dion for "Whodunit," the first on-line TV series. Starting with the pilot -- filmed a couple of weeks ago on locations at the Newport Beach (Calif.) Police Department and on Balboa Island -- Mr. Vallas and partner William D'Angelo hope to provide an interactive weekly mystery with video, audio and text on the Internet.

While cable companies and media conglomerates such as Time Warner experiment with video on demand, the Los Angeles duo are trying to make the much-promised technology work on the NETwork, a site on the global Internet computer network. Mr. Vallas, former CNN Beirut bureau chief and IBM computer-manual writer, doesn't call this an experiment -- he calls it a certainty.

"This is the future," the co-founder of the NETwork says. "All these media mergers, they're rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic."

"Whodunit" is the first of six series the NETwork hopes to have on-line by Nov. 20. In total, the shows cost only about $1.5 million to cast, film and distribute, "a laughable figure for television," Mr. Vallas says.

Plus, he adds: "We don't have to plead with a network to get it on the air or get the 8 p.m. time slot. We can go straight to the audience. And if they don't like the show, we'll pull it and put another one up."

All the shows will be presented on the World Wide Web, a multi-media interface to the Internet that allows users to download presentations to their computers. It's a medium to which industry analysts say about 10 million people have access, and on which more than 50,000 individuals and companies are offering content.

"Whodunit" will be a combination of still pictures, audio clips, text and short, digital videos presented as a weekly series. Users will be able to view the episode as well as search background records of the characters or review previous clues to help solve the mystery. Mr. Vallas says the actors will answer questions throughout the series via e-mail or on-line chat.

The NETwork is trolling for sponsors. The producers want to make the site purely advertising-supported.

Though there are a few episodic Web sites -- most notably, the Spot, a collection of Generation X diary entries -- "Whodunit" is the first true Internet series offering scripted text and video. The plot centers on two Southern California detectives (who look a lot like Gillian Anderson from "The X-Files" and Ed Harris of "The Right Stuff") who investigate gruesome Balboa Island murders (!) with the help of a sexy hacker um, "What's my character's name?" Ms. Dion asks Mr. Vallas.

"Whatever you want," he says.

Mr. Vallas is sure that whether "Whodunit" hits or doesn't, he hasn't made the wrong career move.

"The audience is growing, the technology is getting better -- it'll be just like television on your computer in two years," he says. "And we'll already be there."

Stephen Lynch can be e-mailed at numbercr1.freedom.com

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