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With 200,000 hits a day, 'Prom Queen' is Web's belle of the ball

This week marked the conclusion of what might have been the longest short-form mystery this side of Lonelygirl15 : an 80-installment online soap-opera-slash-murder-mystery called "Prom Queen."

And it answered another mystery of online storytelling: If you dole out a slick, produced series over 80 days, in 90-second chunks, will people watch?

The answer, it turned out, is yes. "Prom Queen," a meandering tale of secrets and lies on the way to a deadly high school prom, drew some 200,000 hits per day. By yesterday, it had pulled in 15 million individual downloads, most from YouTube, its MySpace page ( myspace.com/prom queentv ), and the video player Veoh.com.

The idea of telling short tales using the Web isn't new; it gained credence with "Lonelygirl15," which spilled over weeks of YouTube installments. But part of the "Lonelygirl" appeal was the notion that this might have been an actual girl with an actual webcam. "Prom Queen" lacked that ground-up cachet; it was packaged, produced, and ad-supported. Which is hardly a bad thing, says former Disney CEO Michael Eisner , who backed the series through his new media production company, Vuguru.

"Call Willie Shakespeare up and ask him whether he feels his work was authentic," Eisner said in a telephone interview this spring. "Throwing a ball and hitting a girl on the head, a la 'America's Funniest Home Videos,' is phony authenticity. The real authenticity is a professionally-created production."

This one started with a grass-roots idea from a group of aspiring writer-directors in Los Angeles, who decided in early 2006 to film a short-form mystery called "Sam Has 7 Friends." They financed the project themselves, posted the series online, and drew nearly 3 million views, says Chris McCaleb , a member of the "Sam" team. They called themselves "Big Fantastic." And they eventually got signed by United Talent Agency , which set up a meeting with Eisner, who was looking to produce something online.

The story they pitched him, McCaleb says, went roughly like this: "Every young girl wants to be prom queen, whether she admits it or not. But this year, on prom night, something terrible is going to happen." He pauses . "It was a little more graphic than that."

And it was involved; the series revolves around some 15 characters who wrestle with their feelings about prom and each other. There are breakups, damaged friendships, soccer championship games, and secret dying sisters. And through it all, a boy named Ben keeps getting mysterious text messages, suggesting that he's going to kill the prom queen someday.

The budgets were tight, McCaleb says. The writing was intense. But the casting was relatively easy -- Los Angeles, it turns out, is full of nonunion actors in their early 20s, looking for a break.

The next question, McCaleb say s, was whether the viewers would follow. He figured they would surely have the attention span and the time.

"Everybody has 90 seconds," McCaleb says. "It's almost impossible to get bored in 90 seconds."

Of course, to catch up from the start will involve some 120 minutes: the equivalent of a feature-length film. It's still available for the viewing -- on YouTube, MySpace , and Veoh, as well as on promqueen.tv, vuguru.com, ellegirl.com, starstyle.com, and on cellphones on Verizon's V Cast service. And there's a spinoff in the works: "Prom Queen Summer" is scheduled to launch online in August.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss @globe.com. For more on TV, go to viewer discretion.net.

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