As if any of us truly needed another reason to stare at the idiot box. . . .
Still, in response to the proliferation of TV channels, which has left many viewers clueless about what is on most of them, several companies are vying to deliver detailed program listings, 24 hours a day, right to the screen.
Unnecessary? Then try answering this: What's on Tuesdays at 10 p.m.?
A lot of people may have memorized that "NYPD Blue" is on Channel 7 and that news can be found on Channels 5, 9, 11 and 13. But even with the help of newspapers' daily TV listings, very few could describe what's on Bravo, Discovery, A&E;, Showtime or MTV; or which movies are starting and which are in progress, who stars in them, their ratings and the amount of sex or violence they contain.
Salesmen for the new on-air TV listings services argue that print guides are becoming obsolete. There is simply not enough room in their finite number of pages to detail every program. Consequently, the thinking goes, most viewers are sticking to just a handful of familiar channels and ritually ignoring most of what they are paying for with each month's cable bill.
That no longer need be true--provided you don't mind shelling out a few extra bucks each month and are willing to forego real TV programming long enough to scan through the detailed listings provided on screen.
A nd best of all, one of these services makes it so easy to record any show on any channel at any time during the ensuing week--one click on the product's remote control does it--that your VCR time clock could be forever flashing 12:00 and still you wouldn't fail to record a thing.
That's VideoGuide, conceived by Douglas Macrae, a video game inventor (Ms. Pacman) who wanted to help people make more effective use of their TV time.
"They surf, but they really don't know what is on as they fly through the channels," he says, "so they blame TV and say, 'There's nothing good on.' "
Several other companies are planning to launch on-screen guides in the near future, and one, called StarSight, is currently being marketed via cable operators in some parts of the country.
Like VideoGuide, these interactive programs require the purchase of a stand-alone receiver for about $100 (VideoGuide's is about the size of one VHS tape, while StarSight's box is closer to the size of an additional VCR). The owners then pay a monthly fee that works out annually to about the cost of 52 weeks of TV Guide.
For that, they get a two-sentence plot or content description of nearly every program and even more on movies: the main actors, the director, the rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America, a one- to four-star quality rating (determined by the listing service) and warnings about profanity, sex or violence. The listings are continually updated by cellular phone signals.
Meanwhile, Gemstar, the creator of VCR Plus+, has developed an on-screen program listings chip that, like the basic VCR Plus+ technology, will be embedded in some brands of new television sets and videocassette recorders. No subscriber fee will be charged for the listings, but the system will require the purchase of a new TV or VCR when it becomes available, probably next year. Price will vary depending on the brand, but a company spokeswoman said it will be about the same as what a unit equipped with VCR Plus+ costs.
Other variations on this TV guide theme are sprouting up on the computer online services, including one that is available on the New York Times' Internet site. In addition to detailed information on available programs, it allows users, for a $50-a-year subscription fee, to customize a TV schedule by typing in subjects in which they have a particular interest--such as "science shows" or, even more specifically, "shows about whales." The computer then will spit back a list of all such programs, times and channels in the coming days.
VideoGuide is available nation wide at most Radio Shack stores and many other retail TV outlets, and it will work with your current TV and VCR, no matter the brand.
Even those whose video recording lives have been simplified by VCR Plus+ can benefit from VideoGuide because there is no longer any need to look up the code of your favorite program in the newspaper, no need to worry about code misprints and no chance of misdialing that code into the VCR Plus+ system.
Gemstar's new product will also feature a one-button record feature that will automatically dial in the VCR Plus+ code without the need of the extra VideoGuide-type box, wires, extra remote or subscription cost. In the long run, especially if a customer wants a new TV or VCR anyway, it is likely to prove far more economical. But Gemstar at first will only provide TV listings for the next two days and won't have VideoGuide's ability to also provide customers with up-to-the-minute news, stock quotations, sports scores and weather reports.
The subscription cost for the entire VideoGuide package is about $100 a year on top of the one-time purchase of the unit. Customers who don't want the sports and news functions can subscribe to the on-screen program guide--customized by ZIP Code to their particular cable company--for $50 a year.
Those fees are not the only drawback to VideoGuide, however. VideoGuide's remote control, which is necessary to operate the product, is fairly useless when you are simply watching TV, channel surfing or operating your VCR. It is able to change the channels on your TV one at a time and to raise or lower the volume, but any other function--such as jumping directly from Channel 5 to Channel 27, muting or picture-in-picture--is beyond the crude plastic thing's ability.
Neither does VideoGuide list the channel number particular to your cable system. It tells you what is on Comedy Central, for example, but not what channel to turn to--although if the show you fancy is on the air at that moment, the system can jump you directly to it.
Furthermore, it takes time and a good deal of reading to scroll through all the listings, especially if you receive scores of channels.
M acrae says the effort and the cost have not seemed to be a problem for the more than 50,000 people who have already bought VideoGuide.
"It's worth it to them," he says. "They are telling us that they are watching higher-quality TV, recording things that they never would have before and not spending money at Blockbuster anymore because they now see that they can find all kinds of movies at home.
"But the most amazing thing we've been hearing is 'Gee, there are a lot of neat channels out there that I never watched before,' especially A&E;, Discovery, the History Channel or the Learning Channel--some of the more esoteric stuff that people had never found because they are located on channels way up in the 50s or higher. And even when people knew they were there, they never knew what kind of programming was available to them nor when it was on."
Confronted with the prospect of reading through countless summaries of wacky sitcom plots to get there, however, that may not turn out to be life's worst problem.*