A SMIDGEON of Dickens. A dollop of soap opera. Put it all in cyberspace and what do you get? An offering from the New York Times that melds advertising and literature on-line.
It's called ``Parallel Lives'' - three separate stories, to debut in March, that will be updated each week in the Time's electronic service featured on America Online.
Each week, users of the service, called @times, will be able to find out the latest of what's happening to the characters of ``Urban Studies'' (a look at several New Yorkers), ``One Point Seven'' (a middle-class black family that lives in Los Angeles), and ``A Boy and His Dog'' (a single mother who raises her family in a small Pennsylvania town). Each work comes with its own on-line illustrations. Nearby, the sponsor will post messages.
``It seems like a very exciting idea,'' says Dina Roman, director of new-media advertising for the New York Times Information Services Group. ``By providing ... a serial that has a cliffhanger, we're attempting to test the notion of bringing users back to an area where advertisers reside.''
If this sounds familiar, it is. For decades, publishers have released works of fiction chapter by chapter to keep readers coming back for more.
``We've had a lot of well-known writers whose work has been serialized,'' says Betty Winfield, a specialist in mass-media history at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, and Mark Twain all used the technique.
In 1932, the American conglomerate Procter & Gamble Company updated the idea by sponsoring the first radio soap opera. Serialized fiction melded with advertising - a concept that TV later picked up with great success.
New York-based RJR Nabisco Inc., is backing a three-month trial of the series.
``It's not advertising, it's promotion,'' says Mark Gauthier, president of a New York marketing-communications company and author of ``Parallel Lives.'' Readers who click on the Cream of Wheat icon, for example, will get several informational messages, such as cold weather recipes for children. Those who view the Milk Bone material will find out how to adopt a dog.
``One hundred years ago, we had two types of journalism: one, factual; the other model of journalism was a story model,'' professor Winfield says. That a factual newspaper like the New York Times is moving to on-line entertainment is unexpected, she adds.