TELEVISION NETWORKS HAVE SET THEIR SITES ON ON-LINE SERVICES TO BRING PROGRAMMING TO A NEW SCREEN-YOUR COMPUTER. BUT IS THEIR CYBERFARE WORTH TUNING IN TO?
When William Gibson wrote his classic ode to cyberpunks, Neuromancer, in 1984, this is how he envisioned cyberspace: ”A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding ” With his apocalyptic vision of cybercowboys charging through a lawless matrix, Gibson failed to foresee a less romantic phenomenon: cyberflacks. Their insidious rise can be traced to the sudden arrival of TV networks in cyberspace. In the past year, all of the major broadcast and cable networks- ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, MTV, CNN, PBS-and many of the minor ones, have established sites on either the Internet or the commercial on-line services, or both. Sounds like a chance for TV to pioneer new projects and programs to take advantage of the creativity and interactivity of Cyberia, right? Think again. In fact, think two words: marketing tool. There are exceptions: CBS’ irreverent Eye on the Net website; PBS (on the Internet) and CNN (CompuServe), which stick to news and information; and MTV (America Online and the Internet), whose cutting-edge antics make it the most suited to cyberspace. Unauthorized, fanzinelike mini-sites for shows are also maintained by individuals on the Net, which often makes them as quirky as the on-line services are stuffy. But most of the TV network sites function as glorified promo outlets, offering little more than program listings, contests involving advertiser tie-ins, and endless soap opera forums. The network sites, like a lot of TV, have been designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Much of the so-called art that illustrates each site has all the intricacy and elan of a Happy Meal container. And many of the breathless announcements read as if they were lifted from a ’50s cereal box: Play Caption-the-Cartoon Contest every week and laugh out loud at the hilarious cartoons of Mort Gerberg! (ABC on America Online); Nick at Nite’s Buncha Brady brings America’s favorite TV family to the information superhighway! (Nick at Nite on the Internet). Of course, many of the networks toss in a few vitamins with the Cocoa Puffs. Check out ABC’s ”Classroom,” on America Online, which offers something called ”Smartwatching,” with student activity worksheets based on ABC programs. ”Don’t just watch TV,” ABC counsels our nation’s youth. ”’Smartwatch’ it!” For those who don’t mind a little puffery, here’s what’s offered at, say, NBC’s America Online site: You can read bios of ”your favorite stars,” download their photos, order NBC sports videos, find out the upcoming guests on NBC talk shows, and participate in live chats with such NBC celebrities as Jay Leno. You can also surf the NBC message board, where many of the postings, purportedly from anonymous viewers, sound awfully complimentary. ”Fourteen million stars for ER!!! (Out of four),” writes Damslance. ”I can feel the pain the actors portray.” Since the networks are new to cyberspace, some may yet break out of their corporate straitjackets. Change may come with an increased presence on the , anarchic Internet. CBS’ website, for one, has more sophisticated graphics and twists on the network’s hottest shows, such as Late Show With David Letterman, with its Top Ten list archive. But even if you don’t have an Internet account, there are rays of hope on the commercial services. X-Files fans will be in virtual heaven on Delphi, where there’s an elaborate forum on the sci-fi show, including weekly conversations with an X staffer, such as its creator, Chris Carter. MTV’s AOL site, however, is by far the most entertaining and least fawning of the lot-and reportedly the most popular on that service, to boot. You get to tap into ”biOrhYthMs” (artist bios) and ”Clubland” (a guide to live music venues). And MTV’s message boards are the liveliest-even if contributors tend to overuse a certain word. Here are just a few titles of messages: ”Beastie Boys SUCK” (51 postings at the time of this writing); ”Who Sucks?? MTV” (15); ”Lisa Loeb SUCKS!!!” (29); ”Your mom sucks!!!” (8); ”Tori Amos Sucks” (17); ”KENNEDY SUX THE MOST!” (14). Come to think of it, it almost sounds like Gibson’s ”consensual hallucination” at work. So be forewarned: Don’t just surf the networks, smartsurf them!