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Naughty by Nature

Some 'Net content is sick and twisted, but so is the logic behind its opposition

Pop quiz, hotshot Netizens — name the medium being discussed in the following excerpt:

“Unbridled, salacious, subversive, and just plain bizarre… they look like Hollywood cinema but the moral terrain is so off-kilter that they seem imported from a parallel universe.”

With hits like “Bikini Masterpiece Theater,” “Zombie College,” “The God and Devil Show” and “Microgerbil 2000,” the answer has to be the first generation of Web content, right?

Wrong. The line is from film historian Thomas Doherty’s book “Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema.”

Much like the early days of mass market film distribution, the content at the dawn of the broadband age of the Internet is undeniably racy. Both mediums were developed with a devil-may-care attitude and with a goal of providing entertainment unlike the world had ever seen before.

But in Hollywood, the law eventually clamped down and limited the kind of content available to moviegoers. Execs at content Netcos are now faced with very real possibility that the same kind of restrictions — pushed forward by the law, the government, investors or by advertisers — could be placed on Internet content.

Now what do you think about that threat, Mr. Wong?

Mr. Wong, the crass Webtoon created by “South Park” writer Pam Brady, is currently Netcast on Icebox.com to the delight of some and the disgust of others.

At the Icebox launch party, the bow of Mr. Wong’s first installment, “Urine Trouble Part I,” was met with a mixture of stunned silence and nervous laughter. The Webtoon was later used as an example on a network news show as the epitome of vulgar content on the Internet.

In a recent Webisode Mr. Wong, the elderly houseboy to snotty socialite Pam, snorts cocaine on a roller coaster and knocks back a couple of drinks while driving on a curvy mountain road.

Steve Stanford, the CEO of Icebox, admits that though Mr. Wong may not appeal to everybody, he is intrigued by what he feels is the edgiest show on the site.

“Mr. Wong has been an interesting process for us,” he said. “We have two broad editorial requirements. One is that we won’t do pornography and the second is we don’t do anything hate-oriented. It makes fun of some stereotypes, both of the Pam character and the Mr. Wong character. But it is not hate-oriented, it’s meant to be humorous.”

Icebox, like many of the fledgling content Netcos, has a business model based on the goal of moving the characters from the Internet to traditional media. While this worked for the yet-to-be-released Icebox property “Starship Regulars,” is Mr. Wong ever going to get a slot after Regis on ABC?

Not in a million years.

But Stanford argues that, revenue aside, the Internet is a medium to get traditional talent to stretch their wings a bit.

“One of the founding principles of our company is freedom and a lack of censorship,” Stanford said. “If our writers want to be censored, they can go write for network television. They all do anyway. TV is a place where they do really good work, but there are some constraints. Icebox is a place where they can take some more creative risks.”

Only to a certain extent, of course. Even though the Internet is in its infancy, federal laws relating to obscenity do apply.

“The scary thing about obscenity laws as it related to the Internet is that it is based on community standards,” said Joseph Anderson, an Internet law specialist with the law firm of Rosen & Anderson. “People operating a bulletin board in San Francisco may be held to a community standard of people in Nashville, Tenn.”

Anderson believes that in most circumstances Netcos will be protected if they include a disclaimer that the content on the site is intended for adults. Such warnings should be posted front and center on sites with questionable material, Anderson said, not buried in the fine print on the “about us” page.

“What we have is a very difficult situation and purveyors of content on the Web better wake up and respond to that sooner rather than later,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re going to have government regulation in a place where most people would rather not have regulation.”

Larry Kasanoff, CEO of Threshold Entertainment, the parent company of TheThreshold.com — a guy’s site to the max, with the motto “No Crying!, No Hugging! No Learning!” — is a member of the High Tech Council set up to advise Congress and President Clinton on matters of the Internet.

In April during a White House dinner, Kasanoff said he asked President Clinton if Netizens should have to worry about censorship.

“I asked him if he could give me an assurance that freedom on content would go on unfettered,” Kasanoff said. “He said that he sees no reason for that to change — it’s free speech, why should we censor it?”

Kasanoff describes the content on his site, including “Are Those Real?” “What Babes Want” and “True Confessions” as being comparable to a PG-13 rating, although he is considering expanding with an R-rated section in the coming months. The prospect of giving any of the content on his site a formal rating leaves a bad taste in his mouth.

“I despise ratings because they’re subjective by nature,” Kasanoff said. “The MPAA has the ability to rate a film R because of attitude. Who the hell are they to say what the attitude is? For crying out loud, I don’t think blue-haired ladies should decide what to do on my site.”

But MPAA has already made some inroads to rating content on the Internet. Fox was limited as to what they could do with “Me, Myself & Irene” trailers on its Web site — the content of which was deemed too raunchy for general auds.

Others fear that the problem isn’t censorship from quasi-governmental organizations, but instead that Netcos may start patrolling their own content as they push to start making profits.

“The biggest driver toward censorship isn’t the government, it’s from advertisers,” said John Evershed, CEO of content developer Mondo Media. “You’re going to see advertisers having to respond to the vocal minority more than the mainstream. It’s kind of unfortunate, because the spirit of the Internet is a complete free-for-all. It’s a breath of fresh air.”

Many Netcasters are already taking precautions with the ways content is displayed. Shockwave.com, a Netcaster that is gearing up for a public stock offering, found itself in midst of a controversy earlier this year when some extraordinarily crude Webisodes were submitted by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of “South Park.” Shockwave execs declined to comment, but sources said the Netco is going to set up a separate division for content that is intended for Netizens over 18 and house the duo’s work in that section of the site.

Alan Sternfeld, the chief content officer at Netcaster Eveo, said a team of nine examines each short film that is submitted to the site, with a mandate to exclude anything that is pornographic.

“I know how hard it is to define porn, it always gets back to the line that we all know it when we see it,” Sternfeld said. “It’s about making a call on a individual basis. We don’t outright reject nudity.”

Netcaster AtomFilms licenses the short films on its site everywhere from airplanes to wireless devices, a model that encourages picking and choosing content for a general aud for outside distribution. On their own Web site, however, it’s a different matter, with an “extreme” channel set up for edgier fair.

“We think people don’t want to be protected, they want to be warned,” said Heather Redman, senior veepee of strategy and development. “For those who do want (protection), there are already proprietary networks out there, where it’s like ‘Stay inside AOL and we’ll protect you, but once you go out to the big wild Web be careful because you might get mugged.'”

To some, it seems certain that these days will, in the future, be looked upon with mock horror and consternation much as we now look at films from pre-code Hollywood.

“The Internet has very little room for subtlety at the moment,” Evershed said. “Look at how noisy the environment is — people have to make a stir to get noticed. Personally, I’m interested in the kind of stuff that’s smart and not notable for being scatological and crass. I’m looking forward to finding content that isn’t fart jokes.”

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