Two Way Tv Isn't Quite Ready For Prime Time

Americans may be angry at their politicians, but that doesn't mean they're voting. Sometimes, it seems, the citizenry is so busy watching television, it can't find the time to trek to the polls. To deal with the problem, some futurists are floating a novel idea: If voters won't budge from their sofas, why not bring democracy to them through their TV sets?

Call it teledemocracy. Such schemes would harness cable TV and telecommunications technology to help voters interact with public officials through television (box). Sound fanciful? Maybe. But much of the technology exists. Indeed, some entrepreneurs already are marketing interactive services.

Take Montreal. There, 167,000 subscribers of Canada's No. 2 cable operator, Le Groupe Videotron, can use a remote control to select four different camera angles on a hockey game. Hewlett-Packard Co. recently announced a joint venture to manufacture up to 1.5 million remote controls for TV Answer Inc., a Reston (Va.) company that is developing an interactive TV system. The system lets viewers do everything--from responding to polls to ordering pizzas--by pressing buttons on a video-game-like controller. The control device then transmits signals over the airwaves. And this month, Tele-Communications, the nation's No. 1 cable operator, and AT&T will team with U.S. West to test equipment that allows viewers to order movies with a remote control.

If you've ever ordered a pay-per-view movie from your local cable company, you've already sampled a rudimentary form of interactive TV. What makes these new services different is that they provide flexibility in what viewers watch--or even the ability to tinker with what's on the screen. Hewlett-Packard and others predict this will win them converts among media-saturated consumers.

Others are more guarded. "It's not something that's going to happen overnight," says Arthur R. Tauder, a senior vice-president at McCann-Erickson Worldwide Inc. For one thing, some interactive services demand a huge number of channels. Tele-Communications Inc.'s movies-on-demand service requires dozens of channels to show each of its movies at staggered times.

GRIDLOCK. The trouble is, cable systems are already clogged. NBC Inc. has had trouble getting cable operators to set aside just three channels for its pay-per-view telecast of the Barcelona Olympic Games. As a result, many of the services will have to wait at least two years until signal compression can expand the number of cable channels.

Interactive entrepreneurs are also struggling to make the systems easy to use. Right now, viewers can respond to their TV sets in three ways: through a cable wire, over the airwaves, or by using the telephone. The cable wire is the most flexible: Viewers can actually fiddle with the TV picture. Ventures using the airwaves or telephones allow viewers to respond to what's on the screen but not change the picture--at least for now. That's because the programs themselves are still beamed to the home via cable or broadcast. And cable companies, which are developing rival services, have yet to cooperate by letting these services transmit the signals needed to change the TV picture.

More challenging than the technology is divining what viewers want: Game shows, sports, and movies seem promising. ACTV Inc., a New York company, plans to test a service in which viewers play games for prizes. But other potential programmers are hanging back to see if the market takes shape.

Indeed, skeptics question whether viewers will dismiss these services as mere novelty. "Interactive TV is the wave of the future--and may always be," says Gary H. Arlen, a consultant in Bethesda, Md., who follows the business. Entrepreneurs will have to settle on a technology and develop more programming. But if interactive TV has a future in commerce, it might even teach us a thing or two about politics.

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