From the control room at the Sync, the voice: And now, from Laurel, Maryland, U.S.A., where SnackBoy! loves to eat, it's snack time! And there in the middle of the studio, aspiring actor and lie-down comic Terry Crummitt is splayed out on the floor, a large blue pillow beneath his blond-haired head, burgundy bedsheet drawn up to his chin, clutching a large bag of Honey Buzzers cereal. Straddling Crummitt is a tripod; perched apeak is a Panasonic video camera. Eyes focused smack dab on the lens, Crummitt, a k a SnackBoy!, hams it up by contorting his face and exhorting his audience. He tells a story about an unpopular childhood friend who steals $50 from his mother's purse and buys ice cream for the whole neighborhood. Every day at 3:15 p.m. Eastern, folks tethered to computers the world over can tune in to SnackBoy's five-minute silly misadventures at www.thesync.com. This is fin de siecle life on the World Wide Web as seen through the Sync, a Laurel-based firm that produces video shows for the Internet. With its original, television-style programming being fed to computers, the Sync is at the sharpest point of the digital cutting edge. Similar companies, including Pseudo.com in New York and Reston-based TV on the Web (www.tvontheweb.com), are also vying for tens of millions of Internet users, sometimes called "viewsers" in the trade. Skeptics believe the future of television on the Internet could be a long way off. Daniel King, a research analyst with LaSalle St. Securities in Chicago, says it won't be a serious enterprise for another three or four years and in the meantime, many companies could get burned. "I don't think people will turn off their televisions to watch the Internet until video quality improves," King says. But as media converge and video quality does improve and the computer becomes the TV becomes the telephone becomes the radio becomes the message center becomes the newspaper becomes the Yellow Pages becomes the refrigerator memo pad becomes the computer, the conventional wisdom continues to be: Moguls who provide the content, the actual material that appears on the personal screen, will rule the Earth. The Site Scramble For that reason, the National Broadcasting Co. and Microsoft launched MSNBC in 1996 to explore the crossover possibilities between TV and the Internet. So far, results have been mixed. The MSNBC site is bombarded by users for big news events like the release of the Monica Lewinsky tapes or the flight of John Glenn, but the cable channel's highest-rated show is still "Imus in the Morning," a radio program. For that reason, NBC tries and tries again. One of its latest ventures, "Homicide: The Second Shift," is a Web-oriented show based on the TV drama. The online version (www.nbc.com/homicide) has different characters and uses "streaming video" technology that allows folks with mediocre computers to see sketchy moving pictures. For that reason, USA Networks just proposed a merger with Lycos, a popular Web portal. "There is no excuse now for us not to be a dominant player as the world continues its transition towards interactive systems," Barry Diller, chairman of USA Networks, said in a statement last Tuesday. For that reason, Showtime, the cable movie network, has scarfed up 28 episodes of a spicy Internet-based animated science fiction series called "WhirlGirl." The shows, five minutes each, will be presented on ShowtimeOnline beginning Feb. 26. Showtime reserves the right to retool "WhirlGirl" into a full-blown TV series. For that reason, Broadcast.com offers "Court TV," and other recast network shows, on the Web. In the first six months of 1998, the Texas-based company's revenues increased more than 170 percent. For that reason, Disney purchased an interest in the Infoseek portal, and Disney's Blast Online, a subscription-based service aimed at kids 3 to 12, offers original interactive adventures featuring branded characters such as Jiminy Cricket. For that reason, the creators of TV's "Ren & Stimpy Show" are creating original cartoons at the Spumco.com Web site. And for all of the above reasons, and more, Sync founders Thomas Edwards and Carla Cole are preparing either to become bazillionaires, or to be devoured by competition. Edwards sighs. "We expect," he says, "the traditional media companies to be moving onto the Internet more and more." Fanfare for the Common Man The TV Culture is shifting, in profound and petty ways. Though megamedia monsters are rushing headlong onto the Internet, seeing it perhaps as just another delivery system for "Seinfeld" reruns, they are liable to get lost in the lotus fields. This is, after all, the medium of the common man. No longer do notions flow down from on high, waterfall-style; they explode from the bottom up, geyserlike. No longer is power wielded solely by the white-haired magnates. Tongue-pierced punks and gawky geeks in glasses can now commit TV. In fact, anybody with a few thousand dollars worth of machinery and a killer idea can be a player on the Internet. Some of the smartest, tartest material is being fashioned by folks who are not in it for the money or the mass audience, but just for the hell of it. And because the Internet is more accessible to creative people than the stale, staid, status-quo forms of communication like network TV, outrageous originality is flourishing. "SnackBoy!" is just one offering at the Sync. The company also produces "CyberLove," a talk show about love and lust. On "CyberLove," Cole, Crummitt and two other folks -- Pablo Quintana, 32, a Washington architect, and Amanda Eisen, 24, who works for a local women's philanthropic organization -- sit on a big blue couch in a set that looks like the Jetsons meet "Wayne's World" and rap about rutting and romance. Occasionally they have guests, like Baby Mako, a thirty-something guy who gets his jollies by dressing up as a toddler. Another guest invented a virtual sex machine, with an attachment that connects humans to their computers in extremely intimate ways. And then there was the guy who enjoyed getting kicked in the groin. "CyberLove" was Cole's idea. "I just wanted people to get together and have a conversation about their love lives. This is not a censored medium." Three people watched the first "CyberLove" show. There were more people on the set than in the audience. Today some 10,000 to 15,000 watch it each week, all week long. Why? Cole, a dark-eyed, dark-haired woman in a dark velour shirt, dark corduroys and dark Doc Martens, waves her hand in the air. "You watch things like Love Line,' " she says, referring to an MTV call-in show about sex, "they never get into the subject, they just make fun of the subject and of the caller." And what is the difference between "CyberLove" and cyberporn? "Most of the shows," Cole says, "don't have unusual guests. We don't do anything that's porn." She adds, "It's so radical in our culture to be open about our sex lives." Oh, really? Edwards chimes in, "You see lots of Jerry Springers' that use a lot of four-letter words. If you make a circus of it, that's okay. But if you talk seriously about it, it's porn." "A lot of the CyberLove' shows," Cole says, "are relationship shows." And what's next for the Sync? "This has a limited lifespan," Cole says, looking around the Sync's industrial-style studio. "Anybody who thinks they know what will be happening on the Net two years from now is crazy." Two years from now, she says, she is absolutely certain she won't be doing what she is doing now. Because two years ago, Cole, 24, was beginning to help Edwards produce Internet-based broadcasts of speeches by Madeleine Albright. Two years before that she was studying architecture at the University of Maryland. And two years before that she was a student at Springbrook High in Silver Spring, shy admittedly, but daring and adventurous. She and another student produced short films for their school class. The other student was Terry Crummitt. On one level, the Sync is a business story. On another, it's a love story. Cole and Edwards, 29, met through Markland, a lords-and-ladies Renaissance-Faire-style group at the University of Maryland. They say they've been going steady for four years and "definitely engaged for a good two years." At the university, Edwards majored in electrical engineering. He's been enamored of computers since around 1980, when he asked his parents for a Commodore Pet. Immediately he started writing his own games for the machine. He was 11. After college, Edwards went to work for Doug Humphrey, owner of the local Internet service provider Digex. In July 1997, Edwards and Cole set up the Sync. "We're here for the long haul," says Edwards. In Web years, the long haul could mean next week, so Edwards thinks about the endgame. "Going public is one potential exit strategy," he says. Another, more preferable, he adds, "is acquisition by a larger media company." He's not that interested in going public. "For a content company," he says, "an IPO is more difficult than for a technology company." Perhaps the most popular guest on "CyberLove" so far has been Jennifer Ringley, who incessantly explores her relationship with herselves. Ringley trained a camera on her bedroom several years ago and began broadcasting, via the notorious JenniCam, her life on the Internet. Impressed by Ringley, Cole and Edwards asked her to do a show on the Sync. "The JenniShow" now appears twice a week and can be seen on demand anytime. "Jenni is a virtual star," says Edwards. "The Internet stars are going to be more accessible to their audiences." "The JenniShow" has about 10,000 viewers a day, he estimates. A mix of advertisers sponsors the show. An advertiser pays every time his ad is presented to someone who is viewing the site. Cost per 1,000 impressions can vary from $5 to $50. Cole adds, "ABC could not have come up with the JenniCam." The Sync also produces "Meeks Unfiltered," a twice-monthly technopolitics show hosted by online iconoclast Brock Meeks of MSNBC and Declan McCullough of Wired News Service. "Cable isn't interested in doing a cyberpolitics' show," Meeks says. "So it's left to the Sync to put me on the air' as they say." The Sync folks are true believers in video-on-demand. Any show that is produced, including "SnackBoy!," is archived and made available to anyone at any time. And the Sync broadcasts "independent films that wouldn't get seen otherwise," says Edwards. Because they are delivered via streaming video technology, the quality of the movies -- most are less than 30 minutes -- is herky-jerky at best. Today the Sync is on the second floor of a two-story yellow-brick high-tech incubator owned by Doug Humphrey. To qualify for space here, a company must be Internet-oriented. "More and more people are deciding that the Internet is going to be a new medium," says Lisa Losito, 27, Humphrey's wife and president of the Laurel-based incubator. "Each medium has a slightly different flavor. Tom and Carla will be an influence on what the Internet will be like in the next five or 10 years." For now, there are some people out there who can't enjoy Web-oriented programming because their computers are too old or their connections are too slow, but, according to Edwards, folks who are buying new machines these days can enjoy pretty much everything about the Sync. And its competition. Finding a Niche At Pseudo.com, founder Josh Harris is a hurried man. His Manhattan studio serves up 46 original shows every week on eight different channels, with names like "88 Hip Hop," "Minx" and the "Luscious Channel," a mixture of "sex, love, horoscopes, men, women, romance, relationships." "We have a couple million regular users," says Harris. When courting investors, Harris describes today's broadcast world as a vast pyramid. At the top are the networks. Cable channels are in the middle. And at the bottom, home of a thousand blossoming channels, is the Internet. "Small shows, small channels, far lower costs," he says. "Surprisingly," Harris says, "half of our viewership comes in the daytime." During the day, of course, folks are at work where they may have better connections to the Internet. Already Josh Harris sees parallels between TV and programming on the Internet: "The dumber we get, the better the traffic." Harris will stoop to conquer. He is unabashedly exploring the marvels of product placement. He speaks of the glories of "emerging deejays doing on-Net mentions about Sprite." He's referring to Pseudo.com hip-hop video jockey Evil D, who wears merchandise that advertises his show's sponsor. "When Evil D says Buy Sprite,' " Harris explains, "it's far more powerful than when Michael Jordan says Buy Sprite' to our audience." In Reston, TV on the Web -- founded in March 1997 -- pays its bills in other ways. The company produces live Webcast shows for companies and organizations -- sort of a commercial C-SPAN. "We show up with lights, cameras, computers and connectivity," spokesman Lisa Amore explains. For instance, the U.S. Information Agency hired TV on the Web to broadcast a recent speech by Vice President Gore on reinventing government. "The Sync," Amore says, "is much more consumer-, entertainment-oriented than we are." The field, Amore and others say, is drawing more and more players. But there's still plenty of room for innovators. In the eyes of Matt Carmichael, online editor at Advertising Age, we are on the very frontier of online programming. "People," he says, "are still trying to find the model that will work." The Lure of the Tube Terry Crummitt, alias SnackBoy!, has finished episode No. 146, "Ice Cream Madness." Now he sits on the floor with fluorescent markers and prepares several cartoonlike drawings that he will use to illustrate his next episode, "Nocturnal Grandmothers." In this installment he will poke fun at his grandmother, who keeps him awake by talking to her television. As Edwards prepares the control room, Crummitt works fast. After all, he plans to film 10 of these babies today. He's moving, you see, and will probably be changing his name, although he will take "SnackBoy!" with him. But he's got to go to Los Angeles, for the next several months. Perhaps for eternity. There Crummitt hopes to do something that he can't do at the Sync in Laurel, at least not yet. Terry Crummitt -- you know him as SnackBoy! -- wants to be on TV. CAPTION: Chowing down: "SnackBoy!" Terry Crummitt speaks from the depths of the Sync's Laurel studio; at right, founders Carla Cole and Thomas Edwards. "We expect the traditional media companies to be moving onto the Internet more and more," Edwards says. ec CAPTION: Faces of the future: TV comes to the Web. ec