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Fans cry foul on The Spot

Beleagured American Cybercast got in hot water with some fans this week when it removed a series of email messages from its fan board.

Beleaguered Web network American Cybercast sent mixed messages to fans this week. First it asked for their help, and then silenced their response.

In the wake of a cash crunch at American Cybercast, head of product Debbie Myers posted a plea for support to the fan board of The Spot, one of its most popular sites. Today Cybercast removed the company message from the site, along with a chain of users' responses known as a "thread," prompting cries of censorship from some devoted fans.

Many Net businesses pride themselves on the loyalty and participation of the online community and like to boast that they've created an open forum for feedback. But it works both ways: Insider information can be easily leaked to these forums intentionally or by accident, and that places the company in an awkward position and potentially even vulnerable to legal action.

An American Cybercast executive said they removed the thread because it contained inappropriate financial information about the company.

"I wanted to let you know that we took down Debbie's post and its thread that followed because it raised some questions in the business community," wrote Cathy Smith, Cybercast senior producer, on the fan board today. "However, we do not want you to feel censored, so please feel free to speak openly on the boards."

Cybercast president Sheri Herman would not comment today on the removal of the message thread. But a company source said American Cybercast's usual policy on filtering fan board messages is to remove only obscene language, racial slurs, and Web site addresses. Cybercast uses a software filter to automatically delete profane messages and links. But the message thread started by Myers was removed manually.

Several users at any rate were still not satisfied with the company's explanation. "There were six or eight user messages, some in support of the American Cybercast, while some were harsh and critical" said Harry Zink, who wrote to Cybercast asking for an explanation. Zink has led boycotts against the company in the past because of its alleged lack of consideration for its readers. "Once you start censoring, you lose users' trust. If you're in the Net entertainment business, the trust of your users is your bread and butter."

Myers's original message encouraged fans to contact Cybercast-friendly press--she suggested the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Newsweek--and to tell all their friends to log on to the shows.

But she also aired the company's financial problems in excruciating detail. Cybercast was running out of money and in danger of going out of business, she said. Without a cash bailout, all of its soaps: Eon-4, The Pyramid, Quick Fix, and the beloved Spot would be shut down by the end of the month, she said.

"We were lucky to have a great group of investors that supported our belief in the future of episodic entertainment on the Internet. They funded our vision and quest for an IPO," Myers wrote. "As most of you know, the IPO market turned sour for the entire Internet community in October. So that plan was put on hold."

American Cybercast's situation is reminiscent of a similar controversy with Wired Ventures. It was rumored that Wired had pulled its IPO in October because of an internal memo written by CEO Louis Rossetto touting the company's successes and issued to 334 Wired employees. The memo ended up circulating among 10,000 subscribers of the online service, The WELL, and throughout the Net. Wired executives denied that the memo had any impact on the IPO, although the incident was clearly an embarrassment.