Trying to Make It Prime Time for Channel-Surfing the Web

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Mark Glaser is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and critic. You can reach him at

Can couch potatoes be converted to Web potatoes? A few of media companies are trying to lure boob-tubers to their computers with online versions of their favorite TV shows.

These are more than just fan pages. NBC has started an online adjunct to its “Homicide” series called “Second Shift,” with characters who share desks with TV counterparts but solve different murders. And the Microsoft Network, or MSN, has gone all out with dozens of “Web shows” on themed “channels.” (To prove its TV-like mettle, Microsoft has set 13-week seasons and already has laid off people because of cancellations.)

With more and more people using TV sets to surf the Web, it’s only natural that Web sites would try to be more like TV. The results so far have been mixed, mainly because the technology isn’t quite at the point where you can simply switch on a show. Instead you often get download delays and system crashes.


Most early online productions were soap operas modeled after “The Spot,” a hugely popular (and now insolvent) “Melrose Place” knockoff that let you read diaries of its stars and send e-mail to heartthrobs. While they did a good job hooking people to daily happenings, advertisers were not enamored with the genre, which is now flooded with more than 100 cybersoaps--from erotic thrillers to gay/lesbian drama.

The “new MSN” goes beyond serials, with channels for kids, business, entertainment and more. The most interesting shows are on Channel 5, targeted at a hip, youthful audience. There are no starting times per se, though many shows have daily updates. One recent addition, “Duckman Presents the Microsoft Network Good Time Hour,” is a telling example of all that is wrong with Web shows. With a 28.8 kbps modem connection, I sat for several minutes per page waiting for the art and sound to download. The cartoons and wit are consistent with the wry “Duckman” TV series, but the sound can be choppy, almost to the point of utter nonsense. Might as well talk to a duck.

On the positive side, NBC has done solid work with “Homicide: Second Shift.” The network has an enthralling original episode that involves a serial murderer. You mainly follow the dialogue of detectives Cutler and Johnson, who work the opposite shift from the TV show’s characters. The “websodic” has all of the hard-bitten realism of the “Homicide” series, with a few bonuses: a clickable crime scene, audio of interrogations, and multiple views of evidence.

If you have RealAudio and a Java-enabled browser (like Netscape 3.0), the experience is relatively seamless. You see a witness grimace and fidget under the pressure. Or you read the prognosis of the medical examiner, while zooming in on his tools of the trade. All of this leads to a press conference, but the killer’s identity isn’t revealed--leaving plenty to chew on in the adjoining chat rooms.

Another engrossing Web show is the online version of “You Don’t Know Jack,” an addictive CD-ROM trivia game. Though not much different from the offbeat game, the online version lets you answer a new set of questions on the Web every few days without having to buy the CD--you just have to watch a few ads and download some special software.

Still, it’s an amazing online experience that immerses you in the game and leaves your browser behind. Plus you can win cash and merchandise. Now that’s a Web experience that would get anyone off their couch.