CBS primes for WebTV

Interactive entertainment shows will follow college football telecasts

CBS is plotting its first major interactive-TV ploy, with plans to create enhanced content around two prime time entertainment shows in Microsoft's WebTV format early next year.

At least one comedy and one drama, as yet unnamed, will be supplemented with additional content that WebTV subscribers can access with a click of their remotes. And more than two CBS series may be part of the interactive mix this season, providing episodic information, cast bios and merchandise for sale, among other things. Viewers will be prompted at intervals by on-screen icons alerting them the content is there for the clicking, but David Katz, CBS vice president of strategic planning and interactive ventures, says CBS is intent on an unobtrusive approach the takes up minimal screen space with a nominal amount of text.

"We need to figure out what the tolerance of the viewer is," says Katz.

Ultimately, CBS plans to enhance the full gamut of its programming, including specials and movies, encompassing 500 hours to be rendered interactive in ways that can easily migrate to other formats such as Microsoft TV and AOLTV.

CBS unveiled the initiative last week, as part of a game plan it began with a slate of college football games in mid-November and is set to conclude with the Army-Navy game on Dec. 2 and the Wells Fargo Sun Bowl on Dec. 29. Football fans can see statistics or player bios, predict plays or respond to trivia quizzes while they watch the games. CBS has no gauge on how many of the roughly 1 million WebTV takers have been going for the interactive gridiron material, according to Katz.

"It helps the overall industry on its slow march to the promised land of interactivity," says Steve Von der Haar, analyst with the Boston-based Yankee Group. But, he adds, "The devil's going to be in the details in terms of CBS' commitment. Are they going to use high-profile shows or take a deserted part of the schedule and throw interactivity at it?"

CBS could use the WebTV plan to spark some buzz around the heavily promoted but underperforming

sitcom or its slumping Sunday drama
Touched by an Angel

(and sell CDs by Bette Midler and Della Reese). Or it could further hype its hit
Everybody Loves Raymond

sitcom. And then there's the second edition of

waiting in the wings.

CBS becomes the first major network to put entertainment to the WebTV test. NBC has created WebTV content around

. But the question of whether comedies or dramas can draw viewers to interact with their TV sets remains.

"We're providing content that is contextual to what you're watching on television," says Katz. "The viewer has the choice to engage in it."

CBS will measure audience reaction by polling WebTV viewers who tune in, and conducting focus groups with them.

Talks are underway with Microsoft TV and AOLTV, according to Katz. CBS has already signed on as a content partner with Wink Communications for its set-top-enabled interactive format.