Net Veteran Seeks Interactive Bridge

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A veteran developer of television-oriented Web sites will lead Game Show Network's interactive-TV and Internet efforts, network officials said Tuesday.

John P. Roberts, 35, was named senior vice president for interactive and online entertainment at the network, which is owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Digital Inc.

The appointment is the first by Rich Cronin, who became the network's president and chief executive last month. Roberts worked for Cronin at Fox Family Channel and Fox Kids Network, where Cronin was chief executive and Roberts was vice president for new media.

In his new assignment, Roberts faces a challenge that has confounded TV and cable executives for years: how to transform interactivity from an intriguing technology into a viable business. That's no mean feat, given how few homes have the equipment needed to turn a TV set into a two-way device.

Beyond that, the equipment makers are divided into several competing camps, each imposing different requirements on TV programmers. An interactive show designed to work with Microsoft Corp.'s WebTV Plus boxes, for example, probably won't work for viewers with AOL Time Warner Inc.'s AOLTV or a digital cable TV box that uses software from Liberate Technologies.

"This is what this whole interactive-TV thing is: It's a big puzzle," Roberts said. "We've got to keep playing until we figure it out."

The advantage for Culver City-based Game Show Network is that most viewers already are interacting with its lineup of new and vintage TV game shows, albeit in an extremely low-tech way. They yell answers at their TV sets.

The network has been using a variety of technologies to let viewers play along with the contestants on screen. These include letting viewers use their touch-tone phones to call in answers. Although hardly state of the art, that technique has one significant advantage: Just about every viewer has a phone. The same can't be said for any other approach to interactive TV.

Roberts comes to the network from former Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's Vulcan Ventures, where he was a top interactive-TV and Internet executive at Vulcan Programming II.

Roberts' first assignments in his new job include bringing interactive games to more viewers and working with technology companies to expand the reach of the interactive TV programs. One possibility, Roberts said, is to develop an online version of an interactive show that works only with a set-top box today.

"I think we're in the best position of any network to experiment with interactivity," Cronin said. "And we want to experiment with all the players. . . . Sooner or later there will be a shakeout."

There's a lot of room for experimentation, but Cronin cautioned that there are limits. "At some point, it becomes cost-prohibitive and labor-intensive to do everything with everyone," he said.

Game Show Network is available on cable and satellite TV systems reaching 35 million homes, or about a third of the overall U.S. audience. One of its shortcomings, however, is that its audience tends to be older viewers, not the young adults that advertisers covet.

Network executives view interactivity as a way to attract younger, upscale viewers. All of the network's original programs have some element of interactivity, and new programs are being designed with interactivity in mind, Roberts said. For the rest of the lineup, the network is exploring the possibility of short interactive segments that could be inserted in the breaks.

Cronin also wants Roberts to broaden the Game Show Network Web site, turning it into a source of original games. The point is to bridge the gap between TV games and Net games, using the Web site as a place to try out concepts that could move to the TV.

Roberts seems well-suited to play that role, given his avid interest in online and console games and his background in television. His first exposure to interactive TV came when he was 6 years old, when he won a random drawing on a local kids' show for a trip to the circus.

A few years after that, Roberts discovered Pong, a pioneering video game. He became so enraptured with Pong and other early video games that it bothered him to think that his game-playing days were a passing phase.

"I actually thought, 'Gosh, it's too bad that I'm going to get over this someday,' " Roberts said.

Evidently, he hasn't reached that point yet.

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