LAUREL, Md. -- Under the harsh glare of studio lights, Tom Edwards plops down on a stool, clips on a microphone and peers into the lens of a small, remote-control Panasonic video camera.
''Everything look pretty?'' he asks.
Behind the glass wall of an adjacent control room, Carla Cole glances at Edwards' image on a small monitor and nods. On Edwards' cue, she presses a button and the camera hums to life.
''Hi, I'm Tom Edwards and welcome to '/etc,' the show that takes a behind-the-scenes look at the world of high technology,'' Edwards booms in his best TV voice.
With his pale, freckled face and a roly-poly frame, Edwards doesn't look like your typical network anchor. And his show isn't the kind you're likely to find on ABC or any other traditional TV outlet. Today's episode, for instance, is about the secret lives of T-1 lines and other high-speed Internet connections.
But here at The Sync, one of a dozen companies vying to become the Internet's first hit broadcast network, the last thing anyone wants to be is traditional. Each week Cole and Edwards serve up a quirky mix of made-for-the-Web talk shows and obscure independent films. Their motto: ''Your television is already dead.''
''We try to stay away from the kinds of shows the real media are doing,'' Edwards, 30, said as he wound up the five-minute segment, which Cole will edit and put on the Web site for the show's clutch of fans.
Over the past few years, the Internet has threatened to turn the publishing and music industries on their heads, allowing anyone with talent and a computer -- or often, just a computer -- to bypass traditional channels and reach the wired masses around the world. Now the same is happening to the broadcast industry.
The Digital Entertainment Network, a Santa Monica, Calif., start-up run by the former head of Walt Disney's television operation, last month launched a series of edgy, Web-only dramas aimed at audiences that most mainstream networks ignore. One of them, ''Redemption High,'' is a series about Christian teen-agers who tackle problems by asking themselves what Jesus would do in their shoes. ''Tales from the Eastside'' is a drama about Latino youth set in the ganglands of East Los Angeles.
Seattle's AtomFilms, meanwhile, is snapping up rights to Sundance Film Festival favorites and other acclaimed but rarely seen short movies, and broadcasting them online for free.
After years of watching from the sidelines, Hollywood is beginning to move into the new medium, too. In the spring, heavyweights Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard plan to launch Pop.com, a $50 million venture to showcase original short films and other digital entertainment.
Even these pioneers concede that it will take time before online programming poses a serious threat to mainstream media. Sending video over the Internet isn't easy, and computer users with dial-up Internet connections are often forced to watch programs in a window no bigger than a Post-it note, where images jerk by like those of a turn-of-the-century nickelodeon.
''When television came around, it certainly didn't crush radio,'' says Greg Carpenter, chief technology officer of Digital Entertainment Network.
Even so, the Web's video audience is growing. As many as 15,000 mouse potatoes tune in each week for The Sync's talk show ''CyberLove,'' which tackles subjects as diverse as monogamy and adults who get a sexual charge out of dressing like babies.
AtomFilms' most popular shows draw 100,000 viewers.
''Our philosophy is that if the content is excellent, people will watch it,'' said Scott Roesch, the company's director of Web entertainment, whose offerings include appearances by such A-list Hollywood talent as Matthew McConaughey and Neve Campbell.
But the quality of online programs varies widely, and even the medium's most passionate advocates agree that it's still a big experiment.
Edwards and Cole started The Sync in 1997. Early on, the firm made money by doing Web broadcasts of Senate hearings and speeches by Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
''After a few speeches from Al, it was time to move on,'' said Edwards, who has a master's degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland at College Park.
Deciding to showcase their talents, the couple rounded up $200,000 from private investors who shared their vision that the Internet was the future of entertainment.
Today The Sync's quirky programming lies somewhere between the slick, teen-oriented WB network and the grungy ''Wayne's World'' pretend cable-access show. There are no camera crews, sound technicians, or set designers -- just Edwards and Cole. ''Any TV studio would be embarrassed to own equipment like this,'' Edwards said, glancing around the tiny studio.
Cole, 25, who met Edwards while she was earning a degree in architecture at College Park, recruited colleagues to help design and build the studio's plywood sets, where most of the productions occur.
A few of The Sync's shows are filmed on location. ''Snack Boy,'' a popular mini-drama about an aspiring actor who suffers from bad jobs and a dysfunctional family, is filmed entirely in Columbia, Md., using a camera mounted above the star's bed.
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Despite the relatively small viewership, some Sync regulars have become cyber-celebrities. Cole, the host of ''CyberLove,'' said she's been recognized by fans at local stores, on the streets of downtown Washington, and on the College Park campus.
''She's hot,'' said Lawrence Grecco, a 31-year-old New York photographer and Sync regular who likes to sit at his computer and watch ''CyberLove'' while sipping his morning coffee. ''Oprah (Winfrey) would never do subjects like they do. They're like pioneers, in a way.''
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The Sync also offers short and feature-length films -- from the 1936 cult classic ''Reefer Madness'' to ultra-low-budget kitchen productions.
Anyone can submit a film. Cole and Edwards say they get hundreds every month. Like many online entertainment sites, The Sync allows viewers to vote on their favorites, so the lineup is constantly changing. ''That's something else that traditional networks can't do,'' Edwards said.
The growth of online multiplexes like The Sync has helped some independent filmmakers whose works rarely land in theaters or make it to the shelves at Blockbuster.
While hit films can bring in an audience, the big question for pioneering Webcasters is how to make money. The Sync is selling ads, but ''like all good Internet companies, we're not making a profit,'' Edwards said. He hopes to sell out to a larger media company looking for broadcast content and an established audience.
Other companies are taking more creative approaches. AtomFilms markets many of its 500 films on videotape and DVD through an online store. The firm recently struck deals with HBO, which will use the films as filler, and United Airlines.
And borrowing straight from Hollywood's script, the Digital Entertainment Network is placing the products of many of its sponsors -- including Pepsi, Ford, Microsoft and Penzoil -- in conspicuous places on its shows.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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