Media: Old cars on a new highway: Everyone's excited by hi-tech interactive entertainment, but they are playing it all wrong, says Maggie Brown

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The Independent Online
A key issue perplexing both television producers and the lucrative entertainment industry is how the interactive information superhighway, and the imminent fusion of computers, television and telephone services, will affect them.

Whatever the future holds, it is certain to be a lot more challenging than the rapid expansion of video in the Eighties, which did not pose any fundamental editorial challenges. Now, as they see cartoon images and bleeps inevitably giving way to high-quality 'motion video' with CD-quality soundtracks, the experts at the cutting edge of the Sonic the Hedgehog computer games boom are turning towards the TV creatives to harness their editorial skills.

The most eagerly awaited speaker at last weekend's Edinburgh Television Festival was Barry Diller, the American media executive whose most recent stroke was to spot the potential of Quality Value Convenience (QVC), the US cable home shopping channel - (the amount that viewers/shoppers spend with the channel is much more important than ratings).

The message from the former chairman and chief executive of Paramount and Fox Inc was that the communications media found themselves 'at that most irritating moment in what will someday be described as a truly radical transformation'. Diller pointed out, for example, that in a truly interactive digital age, QVC home shoppers will want immediate access to the clips of the products they wish to purchase, rather than sitting around waiting, as they do now for, say, dresses to appear.

Most of the headlong rush of telecom companies, broadcasters, book publishers, silicon chippers and software companies into each other's businesses was misguided, Diller observed. 'The networks to multimedia hell are going to be wired with their good intentions.

'Publishers are spending millions digitising their books and magazines and slapping them on to floppy discs and CD-Roms in the happy belief that their intellectual properties are naturally 'interactive', whatever that means. They think content is king and believe all they have to do is repackage what they've got.

'But interactivity does not mean taking a video game like Super Mario and turning it into a movie, or taking a movie like ET and turning it into a video game. That's just repackaging. And while it may make some money, it's cheating. It takes away . . . the tough work involved in trying to come up with a new working discipline.'

In short, entertainment revolutionaries should prepare to abandon their old assumptions, and come up with original products, which exploit the capabilities of these powerful new systems. 'The best way to predict the future is to invent it,' quipped the multimedia consultant Robert Mohl, author of a range of educational computer titles, including Countdown, a maths game that uses 10-second video clips.

Max Whitby, founding director of Multimedia Corporation (an associate of the BBC) demonstrated his latest product, the Electronic Atlas. It marries satellite film of the globe with 2,000 sets of statistics on agriculture, energy and the environment: you can call up film of the Mount Pinatubo eruption, or colour the globe with the distribution of goats, or the pattern of male sterilisation.

'It is like Hollywood in 1906,' said Mr Whitby. 'People are currently doing the obvious things, (the equivalent of) pointing a camera at a vaudeville act, or a train. We need people to bring it alive. Specialists in design, who understand what people want. Eighty per cent of making a CD (for computer) is the same as making a TV programme.'

The person who has perhaps come closest to doing this is Sheila Rodgers. Founder and managing director of the Stockport-based company 3T Productions, she has just completed an interactive version of the board game Cluedo, on a CD-I (the Philips system), which will go on sale in October.

Cluedo is much more than point- and-click video game. Rodgers used a TV producer and a full cast of actors to film three Cluedo stories on location, and added a musical soundtrack. ('The actual logistics were a nightmare. I lost half a stone in a week'.) These drama inserts provide the flashbacks which tell players what happened before each murder took place.

Each scene in the 50 minutes of drama on the disc had to be completely self-contained, and the sets meticulously planned, because the game also includes hundreds of still photographs of the various clues. Players throw their dice and make their moves on a screen version of the board: when they enter a room, it switches to video.

Sheila Rodgers is now applying the technique to a Sixties quiz, called Heartbeat, which mixes snatches of songs, photos and TV clips, and a 'safari experience' version of Survival.

(Photograph omitted)