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They may be the two most ubiquitous entertainment forces on the planet: the Internet and Regis Philbin. And now they've joined electronic hands to create a new television experience. The online version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" won't eclipse the tube-top lady on "The Price Is Right" as the most notable event in game-show history, even if it did pull in 150,000 players in its first night. In fact, once you get past the thrill of clicking your mouse on a PC screen that looks like the show's game board, the online "Millionaire" is kind of lame. You can't pick your own lifelines. The prizes are T shirts and hats. There isn't even a way to answer that time-honored question: Is That Your Final Answer? But the ability to play along with the country's No. 1 show in real time--as if you were truly staring into Regis's beady brown eyes--will undoubtedly mark the beginning of a new TV era. The race to create programming that allows viewers to interact with their television sets is on.

Regis doesn't deserve all the credit for this one. Interactive TV has been around for decades, from the failed Qube cable system of the 1970s to Eddie Murphy's infamous "Saturday Night Live" sketch where he asked viewers to phone in and vote either to save Larry the Lobster or have him boiled (Larry lived). But none of those efforts compares with the vast potential of the Internet. MTV's "webRIOT," a music-trivia program that allows online and in-studio contestants to compete simultaneously, has drawn 2 million home players in the last year. It's not just game shows. This summer, CBS will debut a voyeuristic interactive series, "Big Brother," in which viewers determine who stays on the show. Fox is working on "Battle of the Sitcoms," where viewers decide which of two 8-minute comedies should be aired again. And that's just the beginning. Jupiter Communications, an Internet research firm, estimates that 30 million homes will be using interactive TV by 2004. "Every program can have an interactive component," says John Pavlik of the Center for New Media at Columbia University. "I think it will become the main way we connect to our televisions."

Interactivity works with some programs better than others. Game shows are a natural because the competitive format is easy to simulate and mouseclicks on a PC screen can be synchronized with buzzers on a TV game-show set. Talk shows that allow viewers to e-mail questions and determine the subject of a program are also becoming popular. Sitcoms and dramas--shows with limitless narrative possibilities--pose bigger challenges. "Entertainment needs a storyteller," says Jupiter's David Card. "The Internet is linear. It's better for commenting on what's going on in a broadcast, rather than influencing it." But Hollywood is trying. On CBS's upcoming reality show, "Big Brother," 10 strangers will live for 100 days in a house fitted with 28 hidden cameras. Viewers will not only spy on the inhabitants, they'll change the cast by voting every few weeks to remove one of them. "You really feel as if you can participate in the show," says Paul Romer, who first created "Big Brother" in the Netherlands. "This project was made for the Internet."

By now, some of you may be asking: do I really want to interact with my TV? The answer may depend on your age. At MTV, where 70 percent of the viewers routinely watch TV and use the Internet simultaneously, interactive programs like the insanely popular "Total Request Live" video countdown and the more modest "webRIOT" have become franchise shows. "It's been a home run for us in terms communicating that MTV is the home for this kind of stuff," says Brian Graden, MTV's programming president. "You are growing up with a generation that is almost overly empowered. They aren't satisfied with anything less than full control." Graden says he's learned some interactive dos and don'ts. He broadcasts "webRIOT" and "TRL" in the afternoon, when young minds are fresher. He also knows better than to try an interactive drama. "If you're HBO and you're known for 'The Sopranos,' you don't want to muck it up by letting the audience write the endings," he says. "You're in danger if you back into the creative experience."

For people looking for quality television instead of gimmicks, that's a concern. The fact is, interactive TV is as much a business opportunity as a creative one. While they always want to be hip--after someone else takes the risk first--the networks hope interactive programming will stop ever-fickle viewers from abandoning them. "When you transform people from couch potatoes into active participants, you turn TV programs into something like a sticky Web site," says Pavlik. "They want to keep playing along." Though they may need help. To keep viewers from surfing during commercials, the online "Millionaire" asks bonus questions that the TV contestant never sees. Small wonder that the average connect time was an impressive 44 minutes. Imagine how long people would stay if the online show offered cash prizes--or a fun viewing experience.

To be fair, interactive TV is still largely new. The shows will improve as producers master the technology. There are already several promising ventures. Jerry Springer is shopping around a trivia show that allows online players to compete head-to-head with studio contestants for cash. WebTV, which has had modest success with interactive "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune," is working on a program that lets viewers follow their favorite golfers anywhere on the course. ABC, which added an online component to "Monday Night Football" this year, will bring a chatlike segment to "The View" in the fall. Even old shows are getting new interactive lives. The sublimely amateurish "Gong Show" is back on the Game Show Network as "Extreme Gong." Viewers at home rate the contestants, and the results are posted immediately--in midskit. "As they're typically being voted in a negative fashion, their performance becomes more frenzied," says the Game Show Network's Jake Tauber. Maybe too frenzied. The ratings have been low for "Extreme Gong," and it may be canceled. Now that they're neighbors in the interactive universe, perhaps the "Gong" producers should call Regis and ask for a lifeline.

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