Networks smack, TV Guide dishes

It's February, a sweeps-ratings month, and TV network programmers are locked in their own version of "WWF Smackdown!"

Pow! NBC tries to cash in on the game-show craze with "Twenty-One." Wham! ABC body slams 'em by running "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" at the same time, pinning "Twenty-One" to the ratings mat.

One great place to be as TV outlets struggle to wrestle viewers from each other - or from competing video pastimes like computers, games, and DVDs (see story at right) - may be on the sidelines, calling all the action.

That's the theory behind the TV Guide Channel, anyway. If you have cable TV, there's a good chance you have it; some 53 million homes do. It's that screen where the TV listings scroll across the bottom half while commercials and entertainment news fill the top.

The channel is proud of those scrolling listings: They must be carefully customized for each local system's channel lineup. Recently, they've been color-coded to more easily distinguish between types of programs (red for sports, green for movies, etc.).

But it's the top half of the screen that Pam McKissick, the president of TV Guide Networks, wanted to chat about in a phone call earlier this week.

The bottom of the screen "tells you what's on TV," but the top "takes you inside TV," Ms. McKissick says. To do this, she has beefed up the content, adding a "Music News" segment (with Katie Wagner, daughter of actor Robert Wagner), "Sports View," and "Celebrity Chat." "Chat" uses TV Guide's Web site ( to solicit questions from viewers about their favorite stars. The celebrities are then asked the questions in interviews on the channel.

In the future, McKissick wants to add an "Around Town" feature that would tell viewers about events of interest in their local areas.

Doesn't she worry that all these on-screen features might cause some of the 11 million subscribers to the parent TV Guide magazine to cancel?

Not at all. The magazine is for plan-ahead types; the channel is for "spontaneous viewers" who are clicking around for something to watch. The channel gets some viewers who check them first and others that click over during commercials or when they tire of the show they're watching. The "fun" top-half features, McKissick hopes, will make them want to stick around awhile.

A new poll shows Americans choosing to get less and less news from network TV. In 1996, 39 percent of Americans said the networks were their primary source of election news. Last month, that figure was only 24 percent, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center ( Other big losers were newspapers (down from 48 percent to 31 percent), radio, and local TV news. Up were cable TV (from 23 percent to 31 percent) and the Internet (from 2 to 6 percent).

Both the Pew poll and another published in the March edition of Brill's Content magazine show a trend some may find disturbing: Many people rely on the jokes of late-night comedians for their news. Brill's says 13 percent of Americans rely on David Letterman or Jay Leno to keep them informed on current events. The Pew poll says 16 percent regularly get news about political candidates from comedy shows like "Saturday Night Live."

So, who's the joke on here?

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