Flipping on TV to flip through your 'magazine'
Are Americans ready to read their TV sets? After years of study and experimentation, a number of large publishers and broadcasters apparently think so.
They are poised to come out with an array of ''electronic magazines'' - a menu of news, weather, sports, film reviews, and other entrees that the viewer literally reads in print form - piped to home viewers with specially equipped TV sets.
The arrival of these long-foreshadowed ''teletext'' services, one of several information technologies expected to compete for a place in the home over the next decade, may alter forever the way people use their sets. It could also eventually affect the balance among TV, newspapers, and radio.
Heretofore just a flicker in the eyes of some media giants, teletext now appears ready to go beyond the experimentation stage:
* Both CBS and NBC plan to put out national ''electronic magazines'' soon, pending approval by the Federal Communications Commission. CBS's over-the-air telecasts - including print-and-graphic reports of national news, sports, business, and features - are to begin in April, NBC's sometime this summer.
* The Cincinnati-based Taft Broadcasting Corporation is to go commercial with a 100-page ''journal'' for area viewers within a few weeks if it receives FCC approval. Since last July the company has been experimenting with a service in 40 Cincinnati-area 40 homes.
* Satellite Syndicated Systems Inc. and Keycom Electronic Publishing (the latter a joint venture of Field Enterprises, Honeywell Inc., and Centel, a telephone company) will soon expand their teletext magazine service to some 70 viewing areas across the country. The companies have been operating a commercial teletext system, sent over cable TV lines, since November.
Another cable teletext service, this one from Time Inc., is being tested in San Diego and in Orlando, Fla.
Teletext involves transferring printed information and some graphics from a central source to a home TV. A decoder attached to the set converts the signal into a ''page'' of information on the screen. Subjects may range from news to restaurant and airline directories.
Unlike text services carried on some cable systems, in which subscribers passively watch lines of print scroll up the screen, teletext lets viewers to pick and choose information. They flip through ''pages'' by punching buttons on a hand-held control box or small keypad.
As an information tool, teletext is less versatile than videotext, its electronic cousin, which allows two-way information flow. Viewers can scan ''pages'' of text on the TV screen; they also can send signals that let them to do banking and shopping and send electronic mail.
Nevertheless, in the short run the simpler and cheaper teletext service is expected to show up in more homes than its video rival. By 1990, some 20 percent of US households are expected to receive electronic teletext magazines, according to industry estimates.
Whether the companies will be able to line up enough subscribers and advertisers to get there, however, is no certainty. One snag is the cost and availability of decoders. No one produces them on a large scale in the US. Several are gearing up for production, but mass supply probably won't be available until late this year.
Initially the decoders are expected to sell for between $200 and $800. Later they will probably be built into TV sets and should add less than $100 to the price of a new set. With cable teletext, the decoder and keypads are rented; the cost is part of a monthly rental fee (probably about $20) for the service.
But, says John Reidy, a brokerage house media analyst, the substantial cost of the boxes is going to mean at least three to four years before teletext shows up in many homes. ''We are going to go through a couple of years of real unprofitability, consumer confusion, and standardization problems,'' adds Mark Plakias, a marketing analyst.
A few companies, though, are convinced that the speed and living-room convenience of the new technology - plus its success in Europe, where 1.5 million are now plugged in - will win over American video readers.