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Microsoft turned on by TV biz

Gates snuggling up to Hollywood

As the once-distant dream of interactive television speeds closer to reality, Microsoft topper Bill Gates has decided to send an unmistakable message to the TV biz: Luv ya, babe.

Gates’ attempt to cozy up to Hollywood comes by way of Microsoft’s WebTV service, which today will announce new programming alliances with several major broadcast, cable and production outlets. Deals will add interactive features to aud grabbers such as Big Ticket’s “Judge Judy,” NBC News’ “Today,” Columbia TriStar Television’s “Jeopardy!” and the showbiz cabler E!

Microsoft execs are also upping their efforts to schmooze showbizzers, teaming up with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences for a fall season premiere bash being held tonight at the soon-to-close Chasen’s in Beverly Hills.

WebTV Networks prexy and co-founder Bruce Leak says his goal is to make interactivity a must-have for producers and programmers.

“We’re talking to everybody,” he said. “There’s no reason not to make a program interactive for WebTV … It’s all up to the creativity and desire of broadcasters.”

Hollywood has been hearing predictions of an interactive revolution for years, but, promises Leak, “This time it’s actually going to happen.”

WebTV already offers some interactive features to subscribers who own its WebTV Plus unit, which allows couch spuds to surf the Internet while watching television programs. By pressing a button on a remote control, viewers can get more info about a program, participate in polls or buy merchandise related to the program.

Users can also chat with other viewers watching the same program, creating a sense of community. E-commerce potential is just now being explored, but promises to be huge.

News cabler MSNBC and the Weather Channel have been offering interactive features for several months now, while E! and “Judge Judy” have experimented with interactivity.

Starting next month, “Judy” will be interactive on a daily basis, while E! will be a two-way web 24 hours a day. Other new interactive programming set to launch next month includes:

  • “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!”: Both shows will now let viewers play along with contestants at home.

  • “NBC Nightly News,” “Dateline” and “Today”: All three Peacock newscasts will offer additional background info on stories as they’re reported on-air, polling and localized details on key issues. PBS’ “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” will begin offering similar features.

  • HBO: Feevee cabler will begin adding interactivity to its World Championship Boxing events, allowing viewers to see live punch count statistics and vote on who won a round.

Microsoft hopes to get a significant boost in WebTV’s subscriber count over the next few months with the introduction of Echostar’s new DISHPlayer, which will incorporate WebTV Plus and digital video recording technology into an advanced DBS system. The DISHPlayer will be priced at around $200 and is expected to compete with highly touted digital recording devices TiVO and Replay.

To help establish a presence in Hollywood, WebTV is making it easy for producers to add interactive features, in some cases even providing seed money to pay for the technology needed to create interactivity.

Smooth intro

Big Ticket exec veepee Bill Sanders says the process of making “Judge Judy” interactive has gone smoothly so far and has provided valuable insight into the future of broadcasting.

“It’s a good learning experience for us as a production company,” he said, adding that enhanced features are a cheap way to make repeats more attractive to viewers.