Sunday, November 28, 1999

PC users can play along with MTV contestants




BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Those who want their MTV — and Internet at the same time — will have a WebRIOT starting Monday.

        For the first time, viewers will be able to play a game along with TV contestants. MTV's WebRIOT show (5 p.m. weekdays) marks a significant step in the long-awaited convergence of television, personal computers and the World Wide Web.

        “This is the only show where the whole planet gets to play,” says host Ahmet Zappa.

        Not exactly. MTV's computers only accommodate 25,000 people to register at MTV.com and compete with four studio participants answering trivia questions about rock stars, music videos and related subjects.

        Scores for the top 10 home viewers will air on MTV near the end of the program, before the two remaining studio panelists play a final lightning round.

        “Our software allows us to instantly process all 25,000 answers from across the country and flash back on their television screen right there in their bedroom the winning names,” says Brian Graden, MTV executive vice president for programming.

        Like ABC's Who Wants to be a Millionaire, players are asked to select one of four multiple choice answers. The quiz is related to five music videos played during the half-hour show from MTV's Time Square studio.

        The person who punches in the correct answer the quickest gets up to 250 points in the first round, and as many as 500 points in the second round — within the allotted 10 seconds.

        “We've tested it mathematically to make sure that even if a lot of people are really good, that there won't be a tie,” Mr. Graden says.

        Top winners in cyberspace and on the telecast will win e-commerce gift certificates, says an MTV spokeswoman. MTV will air the game twice daily — once for the eastern and central time zones, and again exclusively for the mountain and western time zones (with new questions).

        MTV has spent $500,000 over more than a year developing TV's most interactive game. It is based on MTV research showing that a growing number of MTV's target audience, viewers ages 12-34, are “multitasking,” or watching TV and playing on-line at the same time, Mr. Graden says.

        Because MTV's audience spends about 10 hours a week on the Internet, “we're spending a lot of time trying to understand how our audience relates to, and works with, the Internet,” he says.

        “The MTV audience is truly the demographic that's leading this (Internet) revolution,” he says.

        “It was an overwhelming number of them who actually use both media at the same time that is what pushed us down this path.”

        Viewers' computer modem speeds — the rate at which data is transmitted — should not be a factor.

        “The way we've engineered the game, connection speed is really not a variable,” says Rick Holzman, the head of MTV's on-line and technology group.

        “Most of the game is actually taking place on your local computer, so you're playing against an internal timer. And then we do the calculations afterwards,” Mr. Holzman says.

        If more than 25,000 people want to play the game, MTV likely will upgrade the technology.

        “I'm sure we'll adjust and try to develop software as we go along,” Mr. Graden says. “We toyed with 5,000 or 10,000 (participants), and decided that was too little. And 50,000 we thought would be too much capacity, based on the number of people who are online at any given time.”

        Although most TV networks have games and trivia on their Web sites, WebRIOT is the first that enables the PC user to play in real time. The trivia game also will be accessible 24-hours a day on-line, like ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on ABC.com.

        About 3 million people played Millionaire online when the game show aired Nov. 7-24, says Michelle Bergman, ABC.com publicist.

        MTV executives speak candidly about how the goal of WebRIOT is not Nielsen ratings, but in driving record numbers of people to the MTV.com Web site. (The 25,000 online players represent less than three-hundreths of one Nielsen rating point nationally.)

        But MTV is doing its best to attract the biggest audience: WebRIOT airs at 5 p.m., immediately following MTV's popular Total Request Live (3:30-5 p.m.), where viewers vote for their favorite videos by telephone or the Internet.

        “This, for us, is not about ratings,” Mr. Graden says. MTV has tried to create “a unique entertainment experience that would require the simultaneous use of both the television and the computer, hopefully exploiting what is great about each individual medium.”

        They'll be catching kids in the 'Net, as MTV has done on TV for nearly two decades. The future is here.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.