BISSEX: Surfing From the Couch

This week's media buzzword is "convergence," a term with a soothing, seamless, inevitable sound. Ever since the Internet first showed up on the radar of media analysts, the merging or convergence of this upstart technology with the dominant mass media -- particularly television -- has been seen as inevitable. It hasn't been, however, very seamless or soothing.Failed attempts at sticking TV and the Net together have been numerous. If you caught any of the various plans for "interactive television" a few years ago you may wonder what became of them. Programs inviting input from the viewer ("What do YOU think Geraldo should ask next? Click HERE to buy Kathie Lee's blazer!") seemed like a dandy idea at first. Home trials even happened, but the mixed results were not enough to justify the massive investment needed for nationwide access. Without a national audience, there was little incentive for advertisers to jump on board -- and without advertising dollars, broadcasters couldn't afford to develop special "interactive" content.Such failures were not the end, however, but the unsteady beginning of convergence, whose ultimate result on the technological side will most likely be a single network for most voice, data, and video traffic. The media and telecommunications giants will spend billions of dollars and perhaps 20 years guiding and riding the change.Not all convergence-minded attempts thus far have been false starts. WebTV, a startup company recently purchased by Microsoft for $425 million, offers a product epitomizing the new convergence. Being essentially a repackaged and simplified PC, the WebTV takes very few risks. Designed to work with existing Web content, it makes very few demands. Less than 100,000 have been sold, but Microsoft isn't fooling around; they know that sales of personal computers have started to level off, and are looking new markets.Many other Net-savvy hybrids are popping up. In early December CompuServe launched a talk-radio service carried over the Internet. Two of the nation's largest Internet service providers announced this month that they now offer high-quality "streaming" video and audio services to their website customers. And a new joint project of MTV and computer chip maker Intel called "Live Link" offers video conferencing, 3-D worlds, and other flashy stuff using home PCs and Internet connections. Intel, salivating at the thought of millions of young people upgrading their PCs to participate, says the show will help them deliver "compelling PC experiences to the youth market."Using the Net, rather than trying to compete with it, is becoming the safe bet. The Internet -- or whatever is morphs into -- will be the next century's dialtone, a basic service that carries other services -- much like the telephone network today carries psychic hotlines, catalog orders, and modem connections.For now, the Net's relation to televised entertainment remains almost entirely parasitic. Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation is remaking a failed Internet guide service into an online TV Guide. "Fan sites" for TV shows, movies, musicians, and individual performers abound. Just yesterday I got a press packet in the mail exalting the HBO website, which dabbles in original "Web programming" but serves mainly as a promotional vehicle for HBO's cable TV shows.One of the Web-only "shows" listed in the HBO press kit looked interesting, actually. Something about filmmakers driving across the country in an Oldsmobile interviewing random hitchhikers. I typed the show's URL into my Web browser and waited. Error. Not found. I double-checked the press release and searched the rest of the HBO site. No sign of the show. It had already disappeared, a fitting fate not just because its subject was transient but because its form was as well; a parody of the obsolescence that always comes, if not in a day, then certainly in a year.Meanwhile, the Net continues to be interesting on its own terms. As for cramming broadcast content onto the computer screen, I'll wait that one out on the couch.***Sites in my SightsRealAudio and RealVideo are the biggest brand names in online media; a player that handles both of them can be downloaded for free (www.real.com). The most comprehensive index to online RealAudio and RealVideo feeds is at Timecast (www.timecast.com). If you think Net broadcasts should be heard and not seen, then check out NetRadio's 150 channels (www.netradio.com).Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingAs the Net converges with TV, more troublesome mergers -- news and entertainment, journalism and promotion -- are also happening. The list of major media owners is getting shorter and their mutual entanglements thicker. If you'd like to sort it out, check out this creepy chart from The Nation (www.thenation.com/extra/publish/map1.htm) and then arm yourself with the Culture Jammer's Toolbox (www.adbusters.org/Toolbox).Get off the couch and send a letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (pb@well.com), or visit the Cyberia website (www.well.com/user/pb/cyb).

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