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Microsoft Network

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Arsenio and Pauly aren’t the only short-lived network shows limping toward obscurity this month. There’s The Broken Line and VinSight, and the too aptly titled 15 Seconds of Fame — all gone to that great hiatus in the sky. Granted, the network the latter three shows were on is the Microsoft Network (www.msn.com), the online service maintained by Bill Gates and company. But since making the move six months ago from a closed-off system like America Online to the wider arena of the Web (though still subscription based — and then only if you can run Windows 95), MSN has yet to meet a television metaphor it doesn’t like. The Onstage area of the new, improved service boasts ”channels,” a ”national feed” (”local feeds” should be coming later this year), and a ”spring lineup” featuring 12 new ”shows” in addition to the 11 that were renewed from last fall.

The thinking behind such hubristic jargon seems to be that if you call a dog a cat often enough, people will expect it to meow. Well, MSN is hardly purring yet, but some of the older shows have already grown surprisingly sleek. In direct opposition to AOL’s bewildering agora, MSN Onstage offers discrete, shallow-but-fun diversions that coast on waves of animation, plug-ins, and music (in addition to the Onstage area, you can chat, use E-mail, join forums, get news, and access loads of Microsoft-owned reference sources such as Cinemania and CarPoint). Some surviving MSN shows including Star Trek: Continuum and Entertainment Tonight Online remain essentially marketing extensions of their real-world properties. But other areas have truly come into their own: the snappy, thoughtful women’s mag UnderWire, the impenetrably designed Mint — this last the closest the online world has come to the snotty camp sensibilities of an underground ‘zine.

The new shows, by contrast, are thin gruel so far. The programmers at MSN have clearly looked at what is working elsewhere on the Web: Spike’s World and Internet Gaming Zone both offer networked gameplay a la Total Entertainment Network and downloadable software and tip sheets like Gamespot. NetWits is a fast-paced nightly game show on the order of Berkeley Systems’ You Don’t Know Jack and PATHFINDER’s Is That a Fact?; OnParenting is a variant of the successful Web/AOL co-venture Parent Soup, with improved navigational widgets, a thorough health guide, and insultingly dumbed-down polls (the latest asks, ”Has Feminism Harmed Our Sons? — Yes or No?”).

Other new areas reflect a canny, if mildly pathetic, end run around the medium’s existing limitations. On Air lets you chat with bands like Big Head Todd and the Monsters — while you tune in a prerecorded concert on your stereo. AlmostTV features a married stand-up duo chatting while you and they watch a particular TV show together. Likewise, the tie-in sites blow hot and cold: Duckman is as rudely engaging as the USA Network’s animated character, but Hard Rock Live is little more than promo for the VH1 show of the same name.

Two fiction-oriented shows hold greater promise. The beautifully designed SpokenWorld offers ”stories you explore”: photos and text backed up with voice-overs by such actors as Steven Weber and Laura San Giacomo. It’s radio with pictures, but nicely moody for all that. And @Watercooler takes a novel approach to Web soaps: Each day presents a dilemma in the career and life of New York publishing drone Adrienne, backed up by polls, commentary from ”experts” like Hollywood producer Lynda Obst, and excellent career-woman Web links. But the eco-magazine Mama Planet needs to grow beyond its current compost-colored layout and sketchy content, and the heavy-breathing Project: watchfire merely panders to credulous X-Philes (and should thus be very successful).

Whatever potential the new shows have, though, is offset by the inherent slowness with which MSN delivers its wares. On a dial-up connection, I found myself in download hell for what felt like hours waiting for media-rich pages to appear; accessing MSN through a networked backbone at its publicist’s office was nearly as maddeningly poky. Many of the new shows, too, require you to download and install specialized software, adding to the time you’ll spend staring at that nonexistent point just above your computer. Someday MSN may really convince us that it’s a cat — but for now it needs to start acting a little frisky. New shows: C+ MSN Onstage overall: B

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