We gave it a C-
The first inkling that NBC’s Intercast of the Oct. 18 episode of Homicide: Life on the Street was lacking in imagination occurred at the very start of a demo at NBC headquarters in New York City, when Richard Belzer’s Detective Munch asked his colleagues, ”Which animal produces the largest sperm?” For a technology that enables viewers to watch television on their PC screens while simultaneously viewing related print material, this could have been an interactive gold mine: The question should have been followed up with a comparative chart of wildlife fertility, a mildly tasteless cartoon, or perhaps even an E-mail poll. The opportunity went unexplored; instead, the programmers at NBC transmitted a static banner crediting one of the episode’s crackling music sequences to Collective Soul. After posing his question (and giving his answer: the fruit fly), Belzer disappeared for the rest of the show, and so did any hopes that the Intercast would add much value to the Homicide experience.
If you haven’t had a chance to try out Intercast, you’re not alone. According to NBC, only a few thousand people can use it right now. Developed by microchip giant Intel, the system lets users plug their TV cable directly into their PC and see shows in crisp resolution from quarter screen to full screen. Once viewers are connected, they can watch anything they’d normally watch on TV, but it’s up to the broadcaster to provide the ancillary content, which is transmitted over the broadcast signal (NBC has a broadcast-network exclusive for the next year; cable channels dabbling in Intercast technology include CNN, QVC, and MTV’s new M2). By the end of 1997, Intel expects to have millions of Intercast-capable PCs on the market from such familiar manufacturers as Sony and AST. If you don’t want to buy a new PC, you can purchase a $150 add-in board manufactured by Hauppauge.
Here’s how Intercast works: The TV picture appears on the upper left-hand corner of the PC screen, complete with virtual volume and tuner controls. The upper right-hand corner, unfortunately, is devoted to a list of superfluous options that most folks will find quite confusing. The lower half of the screen is where you get the more interesting cyberstuff: behind-the-scenes snapshots, written observations from cast and crew, and hypertext definitions of crime-fighting jargon. Other unrelated applications, such as games and spreadsheets, can also be viewed simultaneously.
It all may sound impressive on paper, but judging from the Homicide Intercast (which, to be fair, was only the third in the series by NBC), it’s painfully obvious that the network is still coming to grips with the technology. The show’s cyberproducers provided two kinds of content: ”True Life,” printed quotes from the likes of Homicide consultant and Baltimore police Capt. Gary P. D’Addario (”Detectives develop relationships, so to speak, with quite a few inmates [whom they’ve put in jail]”); and ”True Drama,” which supplements the story line with background info, sometimes referring to previous episodes (Detective Kellerman, from last season’s episode ”Hate Crimes”: ”Tom Marans loved Erica Chilton, but he was afraid of losing her, so he kills her to keep her”). These blurbs — which look like those ”Movie Moments” panels you see at theaters — appeared every couple of minutes and occasionally were interspersed with plain photographs, such as the row of law books that inexplicably accompanied the emotional monologue delivered on the regular broadcast by an inmate expecting to go on death row (”Detective, has it ever occurred to you that I want to die?”). Sampling these slim pickings, I got the impression that NBC didn’t want to overload viewers and draw too much attention from the show itself — but if you’re going to watch Homicide in a 3-inch window on your PC, you’re ripe for meatier distractions than these barely interactive cue cards.
Even if NBC Interactive manages to perk up its offerings — and the producers promise that eventually Java or ActiveX software will permit them to add some much-needed animation to their broadcasts — these multimedia bells and whistles shouldn’t be necessary to make Intercast a success. Think of it: Using this technology, a PC potato can watch his or her favorite show on one corner of the screen, engage in a real-time America Online chat with fellow addicts on the other corner, and scroll through any one of about a zillion TV websites on the bottom half, simultaneously and with virtually no delay. Nothing NBC transmits down the cable line could possibly compete with a fan’s ability to assemble his own interactive viewing experience — and, just maybe, engage in a little debate about sperm. C-