Susan Karlin
November 2, 1999


The couch potato is dead. Long live the telewebbers.

These are the folks who watch TV while surfing corresponding Web sites that offer enhanced viewing. Once the domain of die-hard techies, TV programmers are now making this new viewing practice more accessible to the masses as an interim step before broadband and digital TV saturate the marketplace. Thanks to increasing bandwidth and connection speed, it's happening with greater frequency. In the next month, ABC's "The Drew Carey Show," MTV's "WebRIOT," American Movie Classics and the Leonard Nimoy/John De Lancie-helmed production company "Alien Voices" are offering various approaches to this media companionship.

"Convergence isn't all in one place yet, so people are telewebbing," says Gemma Toner, AMC's senior vice president of new media. "TV offers a linear experience, but here's a deeper, richer experience available to them on the Web that they can go to while watching. Broadband lends itself more naturally to video, but lowband is where the eyeballs are right now. We look at the Web as a developed companion to TV programming. Instead of competing with TV, directing viewers to the Web at the same time actually encourages them to stay with the TV show longer."

"The Drew Carey Show" will webcast portions of its Nov. 17 episode in an inventive premise that has the lead character (aptly named Drew) installing a 24-hour Webcam in his kitchen. Footage from that camera will appear at (named for the department store, Winfred Louder, where Drew works.) While the primary action of the sitcom takes place in other locations, such as Drew's workplace, the webcam will show what's happening in his kitchen. At one point, ghosts will reenact a murder there. At another, Drew's dog will let hundreds of canine friends into the house.

"The idea is to watch the TV and computer simultaneously, but we didn't understand how big this was going to be," says executive producer Bruce Helford. "The servers will have to handle up to 500,000 people per time zone."

The Webcast will occur without sound so as not to interfere with dialogue from the broadcast. The director also slowed down the actors' movements for the pretaped webcast, done with a 56K connection speed in mind, so as not to create a blurry effect.

On November 29, MTV will debut "webRIOT," a daily interactive music trivia game show to air simultaneously on the cable music network and online at Four in-studio and 25,000 online contestants will test their music trivia knowledge by answering simultaneous multiple-choice questions about MTV videos, with online users playing live against the show's broadcast. Spiderdance Inc. is developing the show's online component.

For its Monsterfest, an on-air horror film festival running from September 10 through Halloween weekend, 24-hour movie cable network AMC has produced an original serialized monster movie. "Roger Corman's The Phantom Eye" appeared as 35, two-minute interstitial installments during the fright flick cablecasts and online as a video-on-demand serial. Corman, the legendary horror film director, plays Dr. Gorman, the head of AMC's film library, who sends hapless interns scurrying for obscure movies.

"It used to be that interactivity was created after the fact," says Judy Krassner, AMC's assistant director of marketing. "Now we're simultaneously planning for interactivity as we begin the production process. Computer users don't want to have a linear experience online. Even if they have high-speed connections, people still want to interact and click around. So it requires ancillary forms of entertainment, such as contests and behind-the-scenes content."

This kind of cross-pollination isn't new. Two years ago, Leonard Nimoy and John De Lancie--better known as Spock and Q in the "Star Trek" franchise--tread a precursory trail to current developments. The SciFi Channel simulcast their Alien Voices production company's live presentation of the H.G. Wells' classic "The First Men in the Moon" on the cable network and at its Web site.

The duo is positioning Alien Voices as a company that regularly tackles this form of convergence. It is currently gearing up for a science fiction audio series, also titled "Alien Voices," to run on RealNetworks in November.

"We're in the midstages of creating what we hope will be the Mercury Theater of the Internet, where every Saturday night there will be a new presentation performed by Leonard and myself," De Lancie says. "Technologically, we're still a little stymied by the lack of bandwidth and connection speed. But what I found fascinating about the medium is that I have more tools at my disposal to tell a story."
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