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Broadcasters Readying for ‘Convergence’ of TVs, PCs

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Confused about who’s doing what with whom and when in the area of digital television and the “convergence” of TVs and PCs? Unclear on what the federal government’s recent approval of digital TV broadcasting will mean in terms of new types of programming?

Well, the people who create programming aren’t too clear on it either. But that hasn’t stopped many of them from experimenting and building alliances in the hope of being ready for the next big thing.

NBC, for example, has not only teamed with Microsoft on the MSNBC news venture, it also was among the first to use Intel Corp.’s Intercast technology, which makes it possible to transmit World Wide Web pages along with television broadcasts to PCs equipped with a special card.

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NBC also is one of more than 50 companies--including producers of computer hardware, television broadcasters and producers--who have agreed to support an emerging set of Microsoft technologies for computerized television.

Microsoft envisions the day when TV viewing will be a fully interactive experience, enabling couch potatoes to get more information about shows, play games linked to the program or download special sound or video files.

At first, the technology to do this will be available only on PCs: Microsoft’s next PC operating system, code-named Memphis and scheduled for release late this year or in early 1998, will include features for integrating TV-watching with computer operations.

Eventually, though, Microsoft aims to integrate the technology into the TV. Its planned acquisition of WebTV Networks, which has technology for Internet access via the television, is a step in that direction. And as the TV industry switches to digital broadcasting, new digital TV sets will incorporate many of the capabilities.

What the computer-enhanced programming will consist of is another matter, though. Spelling Entertainment Group, for example, is working on an enhanced version of its show “Moesha,” which will enable viewers to download music from the show and register to vote in an on-air beauty contest.

Big Ticket Senior Vice President of Creative Affairs Bill Sanders figures interactive television is an idea that young viewers of “Moesha” are already familiar with.

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“If you watch teenagers watch TV, they’re already talking with friends, doing homework, flipping channels,” he says. “They seem to find TV not dense enough anyway. So we thought, why not let those other sources of input come from us as well?”

Cable’s USA Networks is another company working on this Microsoft-enhanced programming. Rod Perth, USA Networks entertainment group president, says he saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the “unavoidable” convergence of TV and PCs by creating interactive content around USA shows like “Silk Stalkings” and “Pacific Blue.”

“There is still a ‘wait and see’ attitude on the part of some producers, but I don’t think there’s real resistance anymore,” he said. He added that the immediate concern of producers now is that the quality remain high.

The obstacles in all this, though, are formidable. Not only is there a desperate need for good programming ideas, there also is the complicated set of technology transitions--and an ongoing feud between the television and computer industries over key details of the digital television standard.

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