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Television of Tomorrow

By Belinda Acosta

MARCH 20, 2000:  I still have fond memories of my eight-track player. (Yes, this is still a column about television). Actually, I shared it with my brother. My mother sensed the pending adolescent fireworks in our house, and so it was the last electronic device she bought with S&H green stamps before they went the way of, well, eight-track tape players. When she bought it, she told us to figure it out -- which also meant figuring out how to deal with one another, since our teenage years made us exasperated with life and each other. Especially each other. After I moped to "Close to You" by Karen Carpenter and my brother air-guitared to Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein," we struck a balance by listening to the Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, and a few other groups the names of which are blotted from my memory from having had way too much fun in the Seventies.

My brother and I not-so-secretly harbor a desire to snatch the eight-track from my mother's closet once she checks out. He already got the Santa Claus lamp (don't ask) which I still scream "no fair!" to, since my mother didn't have so much as the sniffles when he got it. But back to the electronic relic of my youth. I couldn't help thinking about that eight-track player when I sat through "Television of Tomorrow" at this year's SXSW Interactive 2000 Festival (see Interactive Panel reviews for more information) and wondered: Is the familiar "boob tube," the beloved "one-eyed monster" that casts an electronic blue blanket over my sleeping body in the middle of the night, about to meet the same fate as the eight-track player?

Not hardly. But it won't be the same old television, once the race to perfect the technology is won.

I was blown away by how quickly interactive TV is developing in this country, and the time may not be so far off when it may be as prevalent as toasters and microwaves. One panelist offered the year 2004 as a watermark year, estimating that 25 million homes will be enabled for interactive TV viewing.

What does that mean? Think of a TV that works as your computer, and your computer that works as your TV. Think of a TV that allows you to make purchases (how about a pizza during "must watch" TV night?), interact with other viewers before, during, or after a program, gather statistics (during a sports events, for example), or get instructions for a meal from your favorite TV chef, order the ingredients online (your interactive television), and having the groceries delivered to your door so you can cook the meal later that evening.

There was some scary talk about "monotonizing the audience," demographic profiling, and program content being secondary to commerce. But in the end, the control of interactive TV resides in the hands of the viewer.

"Most people don't want 500 channels," said Peter Fernandez of PSW Technologies. "They want the channels they want." Hey, if there were a Jerry Springer channel, and I had the opportunity to banish it from my screen, don't you think I would do it? Turning from a network/broadcast view of the world to a viewer-centric one has definite appeal. On the other hand, when I see the antics of The Jerry Springer Show, or happen upon televangelists with their arch-conservative view of spirituality, or maybe when I take a glance at the pending Dr. Laura show, with her retro-theories on sexuality, I'm reminded that the world is a much bigger place than my own back yard, and maybe I should sit up and pay attention.

The bottom line is: The bottom line is an inevitable factor in the future of interactive TV. Like it's not now? And like it or not, the TV of tomorrow is already here. It's just a matter of time before the broadband connectivity is more pervasive and we're all sitting around talking about the days when you had to order a pizza on the phone.

I think it's an exciting future. My brother can keep the eight-track player and all those Three Dog Night tapes. I got dibs on the console TV.

Not-So-Silent Bob

The Kevin Smith animated series Clerks, based on Smith's 1994 film of the same name, was set to debut this month on ABC. Instead, it's been postponed to May 31. Smith is not pleased. Sure that the delay will poison the show's future, Smith has launched an online hissy-fit against Disney (which owns ABC), posting open letters of protest at http://www.newsaskew.com.

In Other News

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel have been renewed by the WB for 22 new episodes. For those who've been pining for the return of Oz (Seth Green), not to worry. He returns -- but don't count on him staying with the series too long, probably just long enough to add a little oomph to the Willow-Tara storyline that's been percolating for several episodes. Faith the evil ex-slayer, played with delicious maliciousness by Eliza Dushku, was brought out of her coma for two Buffy episodes, then beat it out of Sunnydale. Don't be surprised if she shows up in L.A., looking for work with Wolfram & Hart, the law firm that gives "seedy lawyer" a whole new definition on Angel. Bailey Chase, who plays Graham Miller on Buffy, will now be a recurring character.

The much-anticipated remake of the 1964 film Fail Safe has a dynamite cast: Hank Azaria, Don Cheadle, Brian Dennehy, Richard Dreyfuss, Sam Elliott, Miguel Ferrer, and Noah Wyle. The actors join George Clooney, who's been shepherding the project toward its live telecast in the tradition of Playhouse 90 and following his experience performing in the live telecast of ER in 1997. Fail Safe is a thriller about an accidental order to launch a nuclear attack on Moscow. It will telecast live on CBS April 9.

Emmy Way You Want It

According to a report in the March 10 issue of Lew Irwin's Studio Briefing, The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which hosts the annual Emmy Awards ceremony, has announced that this year, Emmy voters will be allowed to screen nominated programs on video, on their own VCRs, instead of in bicoastal marathon screenings.

The move is most likely in response to criticism that time and busy schedules make it impossible for all voters to attend the screenings, thereby casting votes under the influence of network PR efforts rather than program content. The new screening allowance is reported to be experimental. Whether it will become policy for the future will be decided at a later date. Emmy nominations are scheduled to be announced July 20. The awards ceremony is scheduled for September 10, on ABC.

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