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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.

"The Internet and the advent of (Internet Protocol) television allow creators to create in whatever length is optimal for the entertainment," Climan said. "If it's compelling, people will watch in any length that will hold their interest."

One piece of the media puzzle
But not everyone thinks a real hit could last on the Internet. And not necessarily because one couldn't be developed for the Web.

"We should never expect to see an Internet-only TV show become a hit," said James McQuivey, vice president of television and media technology at Forrester Research, "because if an Internet-only TV show really caught on, no producer would be foolish enough to turn down all the broadcast offers he or she would immediately receive. Thus, the Internet-only TV show would not remain (that way) for long."

Comcast's Robina agreed. "Some of the studios are looking to see if they can use the Internet as an incubation place," she said, "to find lower cost pilots."

But that's not necessarily a bad thing for Web content creation. In reality, the Internet is likely to become part of the larger media puzzle, and an effective--and cheaper--way to build excitement for new content.

"I believe that every media company that will survive will transform its creative process to utilize and embrace the Internet as the important creative medium that it is, with new rules and new opportunities," Climan said.

Media companies, over time, will develop best practices in using the Internet not only as a medium for viewing and interacting but for simply getting the word out, McQuivey said.

"Smart producers and promoters will use the Internet as one piece of a comprehensive show promotion blitz," said McQuivey. "There's no reason to choose only one medium from here on out. The Internet can promote a broadcast show extremely well to sustain interest between broadcast episodes. Conversely, for a property that starts on the Internet, no producer would be content with the relatively small audiences the Net can deliver because it means advertisers won't be as interested."

Still, there are a couple of friction points that could keep great original Web content from being moved to television, experts say.

One is that traditional media producers would likely want to acquire all rights to a new property, and that is something some Web content entrepreneurs might not want to hand over.

"Producers would want to own all the rights and own all the mediums, and if there were a giant breakaway hit online," Hawkins said, "the large content owners would have to get past that."

Hawkins can also "see a future in which something launched on the Internet would stay on the Internet."

Similarly, Climan said, the culture surrounding Web content production is very different than that of Hollywood, and if the traditional media companies want to bring in content originally created for the Web, they may have to get used to people working on their studio lots that aren't willing to adhere to the strict rules of traditional media production.

"There will be a new generation of creators who might not fit the historic model of what a writer or director for TV or film might have looked like, but who will excel in the raw and direct social media that are springing up throughout the Internet," Climan said. "And once their creative contributions are identified, media companies of the future will (have to) find ways of working with those new creators that don't try to impose the straitjacket of traditional media on their creative process."