QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Live from New York!
It's Wednesday night and the clock in New York City is fast approaching the 10 o'clock hour. Technicians are scrambling to fix last minute problems. A comedian has just finished the audience warm-up. Tension is mounting with just seconds until air time.Oops, did I say "air time?" Maybe it's better called "online time," because this show -- a new media hybrid -- is being delivered to most home audiences over a 28.8 baud computer modem via the Microsoft Network (MSN).Any confusion with the tube, however, is deliberate. The show, This Is Not A Test, broadcast live from New York City's "Catch a Rising Star" comedy club, appears at a regularly scheduled time each week on MSN's Channel 5. Not only is the show "live," but it's produced by Broadway Interactive Group (BIG), the multimedia production arm of Broadway Video, the longtime producer of NBC's Saturday Night Live. Microsoft, itching to expand its universe into interactive digital television, is experimenting with the TV metaphor on its subscription online service. MSN uses six "channels" of interactive content tailored by demographics. Channel 1 is about news and information; Channel 2 features entertainment and games; Channel 3 focuses on adventure, knowledge and discovery; Channel 4 does a yuppie take on home, self and wealth; Channel 5 targets young adults with "edgy" fare; and Channel 6 offers family programming. This Is Not A Test, which began an initial 13-week run in late June, is a "communications meltdown," said producer Jim Biederman, himself a veteran of television comedy production. Test combines a hodgepodge of technologies into a single experimental mix. Included with a continuous a live audio program are interactive online images, graphics and animation, chat, e-mail, 800 call-in phone lines, instantaneous dynamic polling and live audience participation.Comedian Marc Maron hosts the show from the stage at "Catch a Rising Star." Amanda Stern is his sidekick and the "chat girl" who referees online participation with the MSN audience. There are also guests (Conan O'Brien and Jane Garofalo have appeared), comedy sketches, interactive games, recurring segments and realtime polling on various issues of the day.One recurring feature allows the online audience to peruse a newly-found "diary" of a public person such as Dennis Rodman, Evangelist Pat Robertson or the members of the Constitutional Congress of 1776. Each diary appears on screen in the form of an electronic book and is configured so the MSN audience can flip its pages, displaying different comedy material on each new page.The underlying technology of Test is a new Internet broadcasting technology from Microsoft called Netshow. The foundation of each broadcast is a live audio feed which is digitized and fed over an ISDN phone line to Microsoft's servers in Redmond, Washington. BIG's creative team then sends a continuing series of computer instructions to the servers to display specific pre-stored visual elements at selected cue points in the audio stream.Will Hadley, tagged the "URL jockey" by the 18-member crew, is in charge of punching up the right visual at the right moment. He's the online equivalent of the technical director in television. Hadley follows a script with highlighted words designated as cue points. On a key word, he clicks an icon that sends an instruction to the Microsoft server to "flip" a specific photograph, graphic or animation on the home viewer's screen.Because the MSN subscriber is essentially staying on a single "channel" and the image files are so small, the visuals appear virtually instantly, even over relatively slow 28.8 modems. "We've been able to do some stunning animated sequences that can last 30 seconds but are very tiny in size," said Tony Knight, the show's creative director.The ability to present a continuous stream of seamless images -- rather than the parade of slowly regenerating graphics normally associated with Web pages -- is a technical breakthrough. "This is the first show to flip these kinds of images," said Geoff Brookins, technical director. "Normally you change URL pages. Here you stay on the same page but we are changing the images on the fly. This gives 28.8 users a fast visual experience."Full motion video elements are not currently being used on the show, said Biederman, "because creatively we're not happy with any video streaming technology now on the Net." When the necessary bandwidth becomes available, he said, shows like Test will combine video with the mix of interactive technologies now being used.The show is "a moving target creatively," said Biederman, because no one quite knows yet how the TV viewing experience and the computer experience best work together. "At first it was difficult for the writers to figure out what exactly interactivity means. How can it be enjoyable? Is it even necessary? If so, how does one control the delivery of the punch line within it?"To answer these questions, Biederman, 34, picked a group of writers who are mostly in their late 20s. He concedes that the best creators of interactive media tend to be young. "It's a new medium that's been completely embraced by younger generations," he said. "Much of this has to with college access to the Internet."Of the TV metaphor, Biederman said, it's the "only model we mere mortals" can use to help make sense of something new and unknown. "Look at television in the late 40s. They used the metaphor: 'It's radio, but we can see it.' That helped people of that era ease into the new media," he said."Early TV programming consisted mainly of televised radio shows. Once the creative and technical people began to understand the new medium, they began to do more with," he continued. "Television made huge leaps in the decade of the 50s, which was its most experimental time. That's what is happening here with interactivity on the Internet."