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Channel surfing comes to the Internet as TV networks exploit greater access

Need a break from television? How about logging onto the Internet for some new diversion?

Oh, no.

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There's that darn NBC peacock staring back from the computer screen. And what's that? Hey, the CBS Cyclops.

There are ABC and Fox and MTV, HBO, Nickelodeon and Court TV, and on and on. Television is invading the Internet in a big way.

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It's no wonder. With an estimated 30 million users dishing out $1 billion last year for on-line access, the growing global web of interconnected computers represents an irresistible new venue and another platform for blatant promotion.

Commercial on-line services such as America Online, Compuserve and Prodigy have forged agreements with the television industry for a flood of on-line program listings; discussion forums; instant feedback for news shows; e-mail access to actors, producers and executives; and on-line appearances by celebrities.

These moves foreshadow a revolution in interactive television, some analysts say. But by Internet standards, the broadcasters are relative latecomers.

Last year was marked by an explosion of television-related information, still pictures and sound and video clips -- much of the material posted informally by fans of various shows -- on an Internet phenomenon called the World Wide Web.

And that all comes in addition to scores of public e-mail forums called newsgroups -- some dating to the early 1980s -- dedicated to boosting or bashing television subjects from "M.A.S.H." to "Melrose Place."

Last month, ABC Entertainment president Ted Harbert appeared in a live discussion on America Online, whose subscribers, dialing in by modem, were able to watch their computer screens as Mr. Harbert typed answers to audience questions.

In a similar appearance last month, Susan Lucci, who plays the devilish Erica Kane on ABC's soap opera "All My Children," drew 804 subscribers -- the third-highest audience for a celebrity "chat" on American Online, surpassed only by rockers Aerosmith and the duo of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.

During her hour-long chat, Ms. Lucci answered 31 puffball questions. Her responses included advice to "marry a man with a great sense of humor, great brains and great legs"; a list of favorite scenes (two food fights, a masquerade as a French maid, and "all of the cat fight scenes in all of the powder rooms of the world"); and several plugs, along with the phone number, for the hair-care products she hawks on QVC.

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So far, television and the Internet are just courting. Can love and marriage be far behind?

"They're sort of in the experimental mode, like everybody is," said Rick Spence, an on-line strategy analyst for Dataquest, a marketing-research firm in San Jose, Calif. Television networks, he said, "at least want to get their feet wet on-line, because it's another way to reach their audience."

As for the commercial on-line companies, which have entered a period of fierce competition for subscribers, television-related services represent potentially valuable "content," said Allen Weiner, Dataquest's principal analyst for on-line strategies. Because software giant Microsoft is entering the on-line business this year, existing services "better have the best stuff they can, make whatever deals necessary . . . just to stay alive," he said.

For TV-Internet crossover, few attempts are more overt than those of the Fox network and Delphi Internet Services Corp., both owned by Rupert Murdoch. Delphi, an on-line service with an estimated 150,000 subscribers, has an extensive menu of interactive and informational features connected to Fox programming. On two shows in November, characters on "Beverly Hills, 90210" were shown surfing the Internet through Delphi. In one plot, characters David and Clare bad-mouthed the Rolling Stones during a live chat with the band and got "flamed" in a fusillade of electronic criticism.

(But you can't fool Internauts. Observant fans on the net later chided the episodes for showing IBM-type graphics on Apple-type computers. "So I guess he [Mr. Murdoch] can do whatever he wants," one fan wrote.)

In July, Fox's "The X-Files" series about the FBI and paranormal phenomena became the subject of permanent computer conferences, a bulletin board and archives of show trivia on Delphi. The service boasts access to "X-Files" producers, who answer viewer questions and comments and say they have incorporated ideas for the show that were introduced via Delphi.

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But access, at least in the case of Fox execs, comes at a price.

Anyone who logs into the Fox and "X-Files" areas on Delphi must "agree" to a statement that any material posted there becomes the property of Twentieth Century Fox. "In order to have Fox producers participate, you must comply with the foregoing," the statement says.

For those less agreeable to legalese in cyberspace, there is always Usenet, a free-for-all of 9,500 newsgroups, including many that focus on the trivia and personalities in television sitcoms, news shows, cartoons, reruns and cable channels.

"It's going to continue to expand," said Joel Maloff, an Internet business analyst and consultant. People like the idea that if they see something on TV to which they want to respond, they can do it immediately via computer, he added. "I rip off a message and it's done. They may never read it, but it's done. It's refreshing."


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