Los Angeles -- If you think you're plugged in now that you're finally comfortable with Larry King and the electronic town hall meeting, think again.
CNN has on tap what it calls the "next-generation town hall meeting" -- the talk show in cyberspace.
It's called "TalkBack Live" and it starts Aug. 22 -- airing weekday afternoons at 1 in place of "Sonya Live." The show features anchorwoman Susan Rook, CompuServe and MCI -- not necessarily in that order.
"You might be wondering why we at CNN felt the need to create a program like this," executive producer Teya Ryan said yesterday in announcing the show.
"The obvious answer is that there isn't anything like it on television right now. It is the first time where we're going to create a forum where people can talk to people -- not experts taking the stage. We're going to use the latest technologies to re-create one of the oldest traditions in America, the town meeting."
After you cut through all the "next-generation" and "information superhighway" talk from Ryan and Rook, the "news" of "TalkBack Live" appears to be in the number of interactive elements it is going to bring to the talk show format.
Start with the setting. CNN is building an open-air amphitheater at its headquarters in Atlanta, which will allow an audience of 125 people to attend the show each day.
Then, MCI and a national department store chain, which CNN declined to name, will offer a video-conferencing element. It will work the same as a boardroom-to-boardroom video conference,
except the cameras and monitors will be in the department stores. As shoppers talk to the cameras in the store, their images will be projected onto big screens in the amphitheater and everyone will get a chance to interact.
A third audience will come from cyberspace, with CompuServe providing on-line conferencing during the show. This means that while the show is on the air, anyone with a modem-equipped PC can "converse" with its producers and be part of the audience.
Furthermore, CNN promises Rook and the producers will be logged on to CompuServe before and after the show to "continue the discussion," in the words of Rook.
"That's what's unique about this program: Those discussions will continue for as long as the on-line participants want it to go -- within reason and to the extent that we have the staff," Rook says.
"I think that there's a real interest to extend the information highway beyond just the broadcast, and we're trying to do that."
Rook and Ryan say they are aware there's already a preponderance of daytime talk shows.
"I think, though, that the focus groups showed there's a real difference between town meeting and talk show," says Ryan.
"Most of the talk shows -- whether you go from 'Oprah' or whatever -- you're talking about experts talking at people. Here, we're going for a sense of the people helping to create the show through all the interactive elements. Plus, there's always room for a good show."
Rook, who leaves her anchor post at "PrimeNews" (8 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and "World News" (9 p.m. to 10 p.m.), knows she's taking a risk by signing on with "TalkBack Live."
For one thing, there's a chance that the technology will inhibit rather than facilitate discussion, the way it did with ABC's "Primetime Live" in its early days. Furthermore, if the programming itself is weak, all the technology does is allow you to multiply the hot air exponentially.
"I'm nervous about it, but I am really committed to the free flow of JTC information," Rook says. "I think this is the next logical step in our country's evolution, to use all of this technology to create a dialogue. I think that's what democracy is all about."