Beginning this fall, about 1,400 TV viewers in Orlando, Fla., will no longer have to watch the news in packages assembled by ABC's Peter Jennings or Cable News Network or their local TV station.
Instead, when they turn on the set, they'll face a menu of choices: world news, national stories, local happenings, weather, sports, business, travel or entertainment.
With a flick of the remote, they can scan the headlines, skip stories that bore them, see an entire press conference, hear extended weather forecasts, listen to stock market analysis or watch highlights of sports events -- but only the ones they want to see.
The goal, say executives of media giant Time Warner, which is behind the Orlando experiment, is to create a news product that combines the impact of television with the convenience of a newspaper, where stories can be read in any order and at any time.
They call the product the News Exchange. Others call it "news you can choose."
"This will radically change the nature of how people relate to news," says Walter Isaacson, editor of New Media for Time Inc. and an unabashed cheerleader for interactive news.
Others are more skeptical.
Paul Di Senso, a consultant with Stanford Research International who studies information technology, believes most viewers won't see news-on-demand any time soon. The costs of providing interactive television are high, he says, and consumers may not be willing to pay.
"We see a long and slow transition," Mr. Di Senso said. "Just making these systems work is an incredible problem, even in these trials."
And traditional journalists worry that customized news on demand, available only to those able to pay, will erode the sense of community and shared knowledge now provided by free television.
Recently, ABC News anchor Ted Koppel warned: "The audience will become more and more fragmented [and] the information requested more and more oriented to the specific interests of the viewer, and the economic dynamics that have driven television news for the masses, with all its strengths and weaknesses, will cease to exist.
"The wealthiest, the best off, will have more: more choice, more access, more control. Those that have the least will continue to have the least," Mr. Koppel says.
There's some evidence already to support his view. Today's early experiments with customized news tend to serve the most affluent audiences.
Still, they indicate that news-you-can-choose may be closer than you think. Among them:
NBC has created the Personal Financial Network (PFN), a closed-circuit TV network for financial professionals that is delivered to computer screens in offices. PFN is the C-SPAN of the business world. "We carried a Clinton speech on GATT [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] while everyone else carried O.J.," says Mike Wheeler, NBC's executive vice president for new media. "If anything is coming down live or becomes available for retrieval, you receive an alert on your PC."
Numerous tests of interactive news are planned in the United States in the next year, with the most ambitious being Time Warner's Orlando experiment. Mr. Isaacson, a former Time magazine editor, says viewers will be able to order a traditional newscast, put together by CNN, or design their own format.
Once the system is up and running, as many as 60 hours of news footage will be available for retrieval in the News Exchange.
The concept has drawn cheers in consumer focus groups.
"It registers a 10 on the holy cow spectrum," Mr. Isaacson says. "People say: 'My God, I've got control. I can make my own choice.' "
Social critics and journalists have mixed reactions to the idea of news you can choose.
"The idea that every American can explore the things that most interest them, with greater freedom, can only be a positive," says Jeff Eisenach, an economist and president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which studies information-age issues. "There will be an incredible multiplicity of ways in which we communicate."
More cautious is Thomas Patterson, a political scientist at Syracuse University, who says further audience fragmentation may be undesirable. The gradual decline in audiences for the network evening newscasts has already meant that fewer people are exposed to the news.
"Cable has been a mixed blessing," Mr. Patterson says. "On the one hand, if you're interested in public affairs, it puts at your fingertips a lot more information. But cable has also meant that it's a lot easier for people to avoid politics completely." Interactive news will require more active, as opposed to passive, viewers.
And Mr. Koppel of ABC predicts that the new technology will siphon away the affluent and "create a natural tendency then for the free media to sink to a lower and lower common denominator."