Pc Meets Tv: The Plot Thickens

I'm a Homicide junkie. Each Friday night, I catch NBC's Homicide: Life on the Street--every minute, from the opening shot of Baltimore to the closing credits. So when I discovered that the network is creating interactive content for Homicide that's broadcast via a new technology called Intercast, I had to check it out.

Intercast brings TV programming to viewers' computers. It allows simultaneous Web surfing and TV watching and delivers specially created content that embellishes the show. On the computer, you can watch the TV broadcast in a space as little as one-fourth of the monitor or as large as the entire screen. Also on your screen is a display of Intercast files. Unopened, they look like Windows 95 manila file folders. Double-click on one, and Intercast content fills the screen's lower half. So while the show airs, you can read, for instance, an interview with Reed Diamond, who plays Detective Mike Kellerman. These HTML-formatted pages (similar in look to a Web page) are broadcast to your PC over a special part of the TV signal called the VBI, or vertical blanking interval.

Although only a few thousand people have the technology to view Intercast content, it's not difficult to get up to speed--if the signal is broadcast in your area. Check with your cable operator or broadcast affiliate to find out.

ADD-IN CARDS. There are two ways to get hooked up. One is to purchase an Intercast-enabled PC. AST Research's Advantage! 9312, which comes equipped with a 166-megahertz Pentium processor, sells for $2,300. (Call 800 876-4278 to find out where it is sold.) For those who have a different machine with a 90-Mhz or better Pentium processor and the Windows 95 operating system, a cheaper option is to buy a $150 add-in card, manufactured by Hauppauge Computer Works (800 443-6284) or STB Systems (972 234-8750). Either way, you also need a connection to a TV by cable, satellite dish, or antenna. The Intercast programming is free.

Intercast is part of Intel's larger plan to bring informa- tion to consumers through various media. Since Intel is not a content producer, it has started ventures with NBC and several other broadcasters, including CNN, QVC, MTV, and public television station WGBH in Boston.

CNN's Intercast offering, News Digest, delivers files 24 hours a day that update stories on U.S. and world news, politics, business, and entertainment from a variety of CNN shows. Intercast allows QVC watchers to view live broadcasts of the home-shopping show and order products online as they watch. In this early phase, Intel is the main sponsor of, and only advertiser for, the programming. (Intercast ads show in the lower half of the screen while regular TV commercials air.) The first pilot rolled out in July, with NBC's broadcast of the Olympics.

NBC executives jumped at the chance to participate with Intel. Now, in addition to the special programming for Homicide, the network creates Intercast content for Dateline NBC and select Sunday National Football League games. Weekly listings are at www.nbc.com/intercast.

Broadcasters, as well as chip and computer manufacturers, are searching for the best way to exploit the rapid convergence of television and PCs. Witness Gateway 2000's Destination Big Screen PC, which looks like a TV and comes loaded with TV software; Toshiba's Infinias, PCs with TV functions; and WebTV, a set-top box that brings the World Wide Web to a TV. The first two allow simultaneous TV watching and Internet access. WebTV gives viewers Internet access from their TVs, but they can't watch a show at the same time.

Although Intercast also allows simultaneous TV watching and Web surfing, it's different from the other systems because its content is sent over a TV signal and its unique programming ties into the Internet. Take the Intercast offering from a recent Homicide episode, "White Lies." Viewers could click on the opening page's hot buttons under a column labeled "True Drama" and get information on the episode's plot and characters.

BAD INK. For example, the "Paper Trail" option provided details about a prop taken from the set, a copy of the fictitious Baltimore Sun. An article with the headline "Feds Target Arson Unit Graft" listed Mike Kellerman as the subject of a federal grand jury probe into police wrongdoing. Traditional TV viewers saw only the story's headline. But Intercast viewers could read the entire article.

Another column, "True Life," had links to the Internet. "Chatter," for instance, gave updates of viewers' responses to trivia questions posted by NBC producers during the previous week's show. To respond to the trivia quiz, you need a modem and an account with an Internet service provider. Intercast uses Microsoft's dial-up networking procedure with Windows 95, so getting to the Web takes about as long as with any standard Net browser.

There are many more options, which make for a lot to digest while following the show. I was so involved with Intercast, I lost track of the program. "Right now, there's almost a cult following for Intercast content with shows like Homicide. We've seen appeal at the fanatic level, but we don't know how that will translate to the public," says Richard Doherty, president of Envisioneering, a market research firm in Seaford, N.Y. Doherty speculates that Intercast will catch on as larger-screen PCs hit the market. With such PCs, you can make the TV portion bigger and shrink the Intercast area. "That's a better experience than watching TV in the top quarter of a 13-inch screen," he says.

To avoid getting too distracted as I watched Homicide, I was tempted to save Intercast files and return to them after the episode ended. Intercast software allows the user to do this by setting aside a certain number of megabytes on the hard drive for storing files. Once the limit has been reached, it deletes files, beginning with the oldest. If you tape the show, you must play it back on a TV; you can't view it and Intercast files on your PC simultaneously.

Intercast's NFL programming doesn't suffer from the overload problem--perhaps because football games have more interruptions than drama shows. As I watched a demo during a recent game between the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs, instead of being bored during a time-out, I read a file of stats. That was easier to manage than reading an interview with Reed Diamond while trying to stay abreast of Homicide's action. Intercast NFL files drew me into the game. When Kansas City's Marcus Allen made a two-yard touchdown with four minutes left, NBC sent along his bio, explaining that it was his 128th touchdown and put him in second place for all-time career touchdowns. Another intriguing feature is the "snapshot" button: It lets you take a video snapshot from the TV and save it on your hard drive for future use.

As with Homicide, the NFL Intercast opening page presents numerous "hot buttons," such as National Football Conference standings and news that can be opened during the program. NBC sends along new information, such as injury reports, as the game progresses.

The challenge for broadcasters, says Tom Rogers, president of NBC Cable and New Business Development, is to find out how comfortable people will be interacting with television. "We started with the Olympics. Now, Homicide is our killer app," says Rogers. Intercast is intriguing, especially for a Homicide fan such as myself. However, because content is still experimental and, at times, overwhelming, for most viewers it's not yet any kind of technology to die for.

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