In the early days of television, when most anything worth watching resided on

Channels 2 through 13, it was a simple matter to determine which shows would air during the week. Tube junkies who had not committed the prime-time lineups to memory merely consulted listings in daily newspapers or TV Guide to figure out when to catch Lassie, Lucy, or Lawrence Welk. When cable came along, the what-to-watch decision became more complicated. Still, the print listings remained adequate.

But as the interactive age of TV creeps toward 500 channels, several companies are trying to convince consumers that they need an electronic assist to decipher the schedule. That explains the arrival of a new interactive on-screen programming guide from StarSight Telecast, with others to follow from Gemstar, TV Guide On Screen, Prevue Networks, and VideoGuide. Satellite TV viewers already have such guides. Some of the systems also aim to help folks tackle the familiar problem of programming their VCRs.

CLICK KICK. In part, the companies hope to prey on the video generation's potential anxiety over how much TV it might be missing. Newspapers and magazines, they contend, don't print listings for all channels and aren't up-to-date. The scrolling, noninteractive program guides on cable systems don't pass muster either. These provide viewers with only a few hours of scheduling data, and are slow, besides.

By contrast, subscribers to StarSight's interactive service can display an on-screen grid guide that lets them pore over a week's worth of scheduling information. At the press of a button on a remote control, they can jump to a show that's already on. Viewers may also click on a show's name to bring up a plot summary and its length.

Shows can also be matched to TV watchers' tastes. They can display a menu that will let them choose categories such as movies, sports, or entertainment. Select sports, and the choice might be narrowed to baseball, golf, or soccer. As viewers change channels, they can call up data on programs in progress, including how much time remains in the broadcast. But the greater promise may be StarSight's claim that consumers can record shows at the push of a button, without going through the usual hoops to program the VCR and, sometimes, the cable box.

Consumers must decide, however, whether the extra convenience promised by StarSight is worth paying for. The company's monthly rates range from $3.54 to $4.33. Plus in order to receive StarSight's signal, viewers need to equip themselves with a new TV or VCR. Currently, Zenith Electronics and Mitsubishi offer StarSight-ready TVs, while Samsung and Goldstar make StarSight VCRs. StarSight has also struck deals for future products with Sony, Panasonic, Thomson, Daewoo, Sharp, and Toshiba. StarSight says its technology adds $50 to $100 to the selling price of the hardware.

Those who don't want to buy a new television or VCR can purchase a stand-alone StarSight receiver under the Magnavox brand name costing about $149. StarSight is also built into certain cable set-top boxes.

VideoGuide, whose service is due to appear on the East Coast in August, with a national rollout set for the fall, only plans to go through a set-top box, at prices under $100. Besides the usual interactive program listings and one-button VCR capabilities, the service will include news-wire feeds and sports scores. The monthly price is $4.99 for the basic service, with news and sports services adding at least $2.99 to the tab. And Prevue plans to eventually add sports and weather information to its TV listings.

PAY-PER TIGER. TV Guide On Screen plans to debut its interactive listings in August. The publisher hopes to persuade cable operators to transmit the listings at no additional charge via the set-top boxes that are already leased to consumers. Although TV Guide On Screen does not offer one-touch VCR programming, it does promise the ability to order pay-per-view programs instantly and lets viewers search by time, channel, or name of show.

Gemstar, whose VCR Plus+ system of instant recording lets viewers punch in the numerical codes that appear next to each TV listing in local newspapers, will unveil GUIDE Plus+ early in 1996. As with StarSight, Gemstar plans to build the capability into new televisions and VCRs from most makers, though Gemstar says consumers will not have to pay a separate subscription fee.

Gemstar is also working on a nifty indexing and cataloging feature called Index Plus+, expected to turn up in top-line VCR models this September. The titles of all shows recorded with an Index Plus+ capable VCR will appear on the videotape. The system can display an on-screen directory of the recorded programs on each tape, which enables consumers to fast-forward or rewind to the exact spot where the selected show begins. That's a godsend for video addicts who regularly record programs but never get around to jotting down what it is they're capturing. Now where is that recording of Seinfeld?

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