Will the next Tony Soprano be on the Internet?

As HBO bids adieu to its groundbreaking show, some wonder if the next landmark serial will be on the Web. Timeline: Tech and The Sopranos

When The Sopranos wraps its final episode Sunday, it will mark the end of one of the most successful television series in the medium's history.

Amid the gallons of ink that will be devoted to memorializing the myriad ways the show changed television and saved HBO, what many people really want to know is, what is the next Sopranos?.

So far, that discussion has revolved around whether the next such great show will be on HBO, or possibly NBC, which aired The West Wing, or some other network. But what if the next monster hit isn't on TV at all? Might it be on the Internet?

"Absolutely," said Sandy Climan, president of Entertainment Media Ventures and a producer of the Martin Scorsese film The Aviator. "The Internet allows you to...create properties that you can then deconstruct into smaller pieces so that the entertainment can be seen as a whole or seen in parts, and you can monetize the whole or the parts. And this is a creative freedom we've never had before."

This is the YouTube generation, after all, and increasingly, TV networks are posting their shows to the Web. Heavyweights such as Comcast and Sony are teaming up with Spider-Man director Sam Raimi's production company, Ghost House Pictures, to produce an Internet-based horror series called , which they hope will attract big audiences.

One thing that's clear when listening to Climan and others involved in the video content production business is that, should a great piece of serial Web content come along, there's no reason to think that it would have to be presented in hour-long chunks, as is the case with television dramas, or in 30 minute chunks, as with comedies. Devil's Trade, for example, is being shown in 3- to 5-minute episodes.

"With the Web, the type of show that will break out will probably be shorter," said Erik Hawkins, CEO of PureVideo Networks, a company running a service that enables users to find and promote video. And it "will probably involve more user interaction, and probably have components of participation or information gathering that we haven't figured out yet."

Be patient
Hawkins believes in the Internet's power to make hits, regardless of what form they may take--and how long it may take to make them.

"I think it's inevitable that there will be something that emerges from the Internet that breaks out and finds a substantial audience of its own," Hawkins said. "I just don't know that it's going to happen as quickly as some people think, and I don't know that it will take the same form that television takes."

Part of the challenge for would-be producers is the form factor of the Internet. Since most people use monitors that are smaller than today's most popular televisions, producers and directors have to think about different ways to present content.

"Making something for a screen that sits 12 inches away from you" can be a challenge, said Diane Robina, president of emerging networks for Comcast, which is teaming up with Sony and Ghost House Pictures on Devil's Trade. "Do you make content differently when someone is sitting 12 to 14 inches away from you?"

That's a concern among producers of traditional filmed entertainment, since they're used to making content audiences interact with media in very different ways than they would on the Internet.

One thing that's become clear, as projects like LonelyGirl 15 on YouTube have become hits, is that that we are in an entirely new era; the old rules no longer apply.

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