April 19, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Major dilemma: date of a lifetime with a serious babe — or babysit your younger sister? No brainer, right? Except that the lady is the daughter of your dad’s boss. Blow this date and your old man can kiss his job goodbye. What to do? Let’s ask the TV audience!

For the first time, viewers could get to dictate the plot of a prime time network sitcom — not just as a one time ratings grabbing stunt, but every week. This ambitious experiment, a Fox pilot titled ”Nathan’s Choice” — from ”Dharma & Greg” cocreator Chuck Lorre — has just begun shooting in California. ”It’s a very strong contender for fall,” says Fox exec VP David Nevins.

”Nathan’s Choice” chronicles the misadventures of Nathan (”Dharma & Greg”’s J.D. Walsh), a twentysomething recent college grad woefully unprepared for the real world. But Nathan has a leg up on your average Gen Y slouch: He’ll face a dilemma that viewers, sitting by their PCs (or telephones), can help solve by voting for one of two predetermined options halfway through each episode. The second half of the show — already on film, obviously — will reflect the winning vote. (The Fox owned cable network FX will later air the version with the ”losing” choice.)

”The dilemma will be really innocuous, but either choice will lead to breathtakingly insane consequences,” says Lorre, noting Nathan could die one week and return the next. ”The underlying message is that it’s not always the big choices you make, but the little ones that can have unbelievable results. This is about a naïve young man who can make a lot of bad choices — and the audience is going to help him…. Think Siskel and Ebert on acid.”

Thanks to the Net, interactive TV has become the Holy Grail of network television. We’re not talking about enhanced programming, like Dawson’s Desktop, the website that continues Dawson’s Creek story lines between episodes. Or concurrent TV and computer viewing (such as ”The Drew Carey Show”’s webcam footage of Drew’s kitchen, which once streamed online during the sitcom’s broadcast). Or even ”Just Shoot Me,” which only last month aired a heavily hyped episode in which online voters selected a final scene. In the case of ”Nathan’s Choice,” we’re talking weekly two way interaction. ”I don’t know of another program that will let viewers dictate a significant portion of its content on an ongoing basis,” says T.S. Kelly, a Nielsen//NetRatings media analyst.

Nonetheless, he adds: ”Although [‘Nathan’s Choice’] is a shift toward what’s possible, it’s still more gimmick than substance. It’ll be a test to see if content of this nature will survive past the game and reality shows.” Says Lorre: ”It’ll be cool if it works, but it’s really complicated. There’s no precedent for this.”

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