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Prime Time TV Fuses with the Web

Programs like The Drew Carey Show and Jeopardy! are partnering with the internet–and television may never be the same

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It sounds like typical high jinks for The Drew Carey Show: On the Nov. 17 episode of the ABC comedy, the Winfred-Louder department store uses an Internet camera to turn Drew’s living room into a virtual storefront. But the best jokes may be played to Web surfers who have their PCs simultaneously tuned in to the company’s pseudo- site at http://www.winloud.com. When goofball pals Lewis and Kate talk in the backyard, for instance, the ”Drew Cam” stays behind in the living room…for Oswald’s performance of ”Belly Button Theater.”

Sure, it’s gimmicky. But it’s also a preview of TV’s future. Until this season, the boob tube’s crowning achievement lay in convincing millions of people to veg out in sync. But now that the networks have found that new-time Internet religion, viewers are at last getting to take part in the action on their favorite shows. They can vote on whether Judge Judy will side with the plaintiff. They can finish the clue on Wheel of Fortune. They can show off their NFL skills by guessing who’ll carry the pigskin on Monday Night Football, or play hangman while watching a Dukes of Hazzard rerun. Producers at MTV, the Game Show Network, and the yet-to-be-launched Oxygen network are even creating new programs that exploit the Web from the get-go.

Still, getting a clear picture of what an interactive TV show looks like is hard if you’ve never seen one—and the vast majority of viewers haven’t. That’s why Larry Namer, whose Steeplechase Media creates the instant polls used on Judge Judy, keeps the Official Super Winky-Dink Television Game Kit on his conference room table to help explain interactivity to television execs. Millions of kids owned the kit in the 1950s, and during each episode of Winky- Dink and You, host Jack Barry would cue them to pull out the translucent piece of plastic, stick it on the TV screen, and use their magic crayons to help Winky out of a jam by drawing, say, a bridge. Today that piece of plastic is the Web—and the crayons have been replaced by your keyboard or a remote control.

For example, MTV’s frantically high-speed music-trivia game webRIOT, which premieres on Nov. 29, will require at-home players to keep their eyes glued to the tube and their fingers poised over the keypad as they answer multiple-choice questions that pop up along with the music video. The online convergence would be invisible if not for the game show’s wired look, which includes a Web page-style frame around the TV image, four on-air contestants who use chat room monikers like ”flirty_guy,” and broadcast updates of national high-scorers who could win prizes ranging from e-gift certificates to a new car.

webRIOT will host just 50,000 online players daily. That’s far fewer than are likely to log on, since the game show will appear right after one of MTV’s highest-rated — and most audience-participatory — shows, Total Request Live. Still, the $64,000 question is whether MTV.com’s Web servers will accommodate even that sizable audience. But why wait for technology to catch up? ”Someday there may be a platform that renders this all obsolete,” says MTV’s executive vice president of programming, Brian Graden. ”But we don’t want to wait for someday. The audience is here now.”