Lessons from Low-Level Interactivity

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Throut and Neck, a silly play-along TV game
with some high-tech touches, may provide a glimpse of what convergence and
interactive TV will offer when and if bandwidth permits.

The cartoonish live show -- yes, a live telecast
five nights per week on, of all channels, Game Show Network -- allows eight
call-in viewers to compete for prizes.

Two at a time, the callers punch buttons on their
telephone keypads to compete for prizes while they manipulate the on-screen
computer-controlled title characters: "Throut" (the bigmouthed blue
beast) and "Neck" (a green-striped something).

Presumably, the main attraction of the show is
the attractive Rebecca Grant, a saucy hostess who's also part of the
viewer-controlled story line.

The process is "teaching us what it will
take to manufacture content for broadband TV," GSN senior vice president of
programming Jake Tauber said. "We're also doing this to educate viewers
about what that service will look like."

He stopped short of predicting when any such
broadband programs will be created.

The half-hour show, which debuted quietly at the
beginning of May, often looks like "PlayStation" graphics -- not
surprising, given the common Sony parentage of GSN and the video-game platform.
(Tellingly, the low-budget show is not produced from the Sony studios in Culver
City, Calif., but rather at a cheaper venue in Burbank, Calif.)

Performers outfitted with sophisticated
motion-capture equipment actually control the on-screen movements of the title
characters in response to commands from the viewer-players of the moment. The
interactive story lines take place on sheep-infested planet Ovine.

Home players in each segment steer their
respective characters in the quest to win Throut and Neck tchotchkesand
an occasional special gift.

Not surprisingly -- with its goofy games, twitch
interactivity and sexy on-screen Rebecca -- Throut and Neck attracts 14-
to 39-year-old males, GSN marketing senior vice president Dena Kaplan says. She
claims this is the target the network is seeking.

GSN's lineup draws predominantly female
audiences, and the network wants to break out beyond that core following.

Kaplan expects Throut and Neck to earn a
0.4 rating, which would be better than the rerun it is replacing.

"This is a heads-up game," Tauber said,
distinguishing Throut and Neck from other GSN call-in games -- usually
play-alongs with aging game shows.

Starting next month, TheExtreme Gong
Show
will be revived for a live 13-week run, immediately following Throut
and Neck
. Also an interactive call-in, Extreme Gong lets viewers vote
collectively on which acts survive on-screen.

Although Extreme Gong is now in reruns,
its original airings attracted up to 15,000 calls per show, Tauber says.

Another GSN "interactive" show -- WIN
TV -
- features simple overlays to enhance its linear TV programming.

Again, the goal is to avoid using too much
bandwidth for the low-budget venture.

Because of Throut and Neck's perceived
connection -- however tenuous -- with video games, GSN soft-peddled the show's
launch, especially during the weeks after the Littleton, Colo., high-school
tragedy, when video games have been pummeled for their violence.

The network even slapped a PG rating on the TV
program, mainly because of the sometimes suggestive dialogue between Rebecca and
the play-along callers (all of whom are prescreened one week before they are
allowed to punch those phone buttons).

Perhaps GSN is especially self-conscious about
the special Web site for the show (www.throutandneck.com or via www.sony.com/gsn).

The site is largely a promotional home page, not
intended for convergence use simultaneously with the nightly cablecasts. It does
feature a stand-alone five-minute game, plus a background "history" of
characters -- enjoyable if only for the Christiane Amanpour and Animal Planet
jokes.

But the site's "brutally interactive"
game includes a "Sheep Shoot Out," which instructs users to get the
animals "in your sights, then blow their little heads off" -- a cheeky
but unpleasant narrative in the aftermath of the school shootings.

Tauber insists GSN is "exploring how to
blend the Web site and TV show," believing this game lends itself to that
kind of dual-screen convergence -- hopefully without the gunplay.

GSN's offbeat approach to on-screen play-along
games represents Sony's continuing attempt to spur on-screen gaming. Its
Station@Sony.com continues to be among the Web's most visited sites, although
competing interactive sites, such as Uproar or Microsoft's Gaming Zone, often
overshadow it.

Sony's plans to put competitive multiplayer
pay-per-play tournament games on the site have slipped away, although there are
many ways to win prizes at Station@Sony.com.

By the way, Sony's clever connections between
various ventures are very imaginative. In time for the June bridal binge,
Station@Sony.com is launching its "Dating Game Online"
("sassy" and "shagadelic," according to the Web-site hype).

Meanwhile, GSN is trying to figure out how Throut
and Neck
will help it and its viewers get ready for broadband interactivity.

But of course, for now, this is just TV. And in a
predictable process, Throut and Neck -- and its low-intensity convergence
-- will only be around 13 weeks.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen couldn't decide
"which monster . to play" on the
Throut and Neck online
sign-up sheet.

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