It's 7 p.m., the dishwasher is humming, the lawn has been trimmed, the dog has been fed, the kids are out of their sneakers and tonight's guest on "Someone Wants to Know" is Takashi Suetsune from NHK-TV, Japan's equivalent to the ABC television network.
Suetsune is sitting in a television studio with a potential live audience of about 90,000. He's come here to sample American attitudes toward Japan.
"Do you think most of Japanese believe in hara-kiri?" he asks this town that demographically epitomizes middle America, a place populated by more trial tubes of toothpaste per capita than any other burg in the nation.
In the studio, a mere 150 people are responding. But scattered throughout Columbus are 29,000 households equipped with paperback-sized computer terminals whose five black buttons allow viewers to answer back at the TV. Twenty seconds pass and the results are displayed on the screen: Only 12 percent of middle America believes that the Japanese still commit hara-kiri.
Next question: When you think of Japan, do you think about geisha girls (button number one) or 35 millimeter cameras (button two)? The computer in the studio spins its tapes. And the Nikons have it over the girls 65 percent to 35.
Then the inquiries get personal, and the program host reminds viewers that no record is kept of responses by individual households. "Do you think the Japanese are sneaky or treacherous?" Button one is yes, two is no. Touch now. Twenty seconds. Twenty-eight percent say yes, 60 percent no, and 12 percent are undecided.
Polling, however, is only one aspect of the system. Thirteen white buttons on the home computer unit summon up the 30 channels of Qube's "menu card." One entree is "Talent Search," a gong show that lets the viewer dole out the raspberries.
Host Flippo the Clown introduces a fellow who claims to be the greatest escape artist since Houdini, immobilized in chains and locks. Click. The clock allows 40 seconds before viewers can begin to vote either to continue this guy's act or cut the aspiring Houdini off the screen.
BZZZZT!Which is exactly what happens, after one minute and 20 seconds. Junior is nearly in tears: "I'm getting it, I'm getting it," he's screaming, even as they're dragging him behind a curtain.
After a year and a half of operation, these foibles of the nation's first viewer-responsive TV system seem less and less representative of its overall promise.
Qube is growing up. This month for instance -- in addition to a full range of entertainment and educational fare -- subscribers can exercise an option to have Qube-based burglar and fire alarm service installed in their homes. Home energy-management programs are in the planning stage, and the future may include information retrieval, electronic banking, and perhaps even voting through the family television set. All this is beyond Qube's now-standard offerings of town meetings, book discussion groups, public hearings and instant polls like the one displayed on NBC immediately following President Carter's God Bless America speech.
"Qube," says Gustave Hauser, chairman of the system's parent company Warner Cable, "is the logical place for television to go. Market surveys are showing the trend in magazines and books is to smaller audiences with specialized interests. I suspect that's going to be true of television, too -- and how much more local can you get than an individual household?"
Indeed, in the past 10 years there has been a resounding acceptance of cable television, the first step toward personalized TV viewing. Twenty percent of American television households -- about 14 million -- subscribe to cable service, up from 4 percent a decade ago. Television analysts view this as the first wholesale rejection of the three-network system, a blow reinforced by the widespread acceptance of pay-per-view cable, which offers films, performances and sporting events for supplemental fees. Almost 4 million Americans now buy such service.
Qube works through the wiring system installed in Columbus by Warner-Cable. In the 37,000-household cable system here, there are 29,000 Qube subscribers who pay an additional $3.45 monthly for 10 extra free channels of programming and the access to 10 special pay-per-view channels.
Qube subscribers say they have become used to test-market offerings, enjoy novelty items, find that Qube does indeed provide a voice for the Silent Majority, say they watch more television, see more movies and go out less. One detractor claims that Qube's local coverage remains too peninsular and amateurish, and she has cancelled.
Erin Moriarty, a 27=year-old lawyer and host of "Columbus Alley" -- Qube's answer to the "Today Show" -- says, "It hits you that you can really communicate with people. You can turn to a TV audience and say, "Do you understand this,' . . . and get a response!" (Moriarty herself was chosen as a TV host through auditions judged by Qube viewers.)
Talk-show host Tom Snyder, who used the system on his show following the Carter speech, notes that although the Qube network is an unscientific sampling, its result tracked within one percent of NBC's statistically valid survey conducted the following day. FDA head Donald Kennedy, who held public hearings on truth-in-labeling regulations over the Qube network, says that the experience seemed like the first hearing in which households and not lobbyists were providing the real input.
Says talk-show host Phil Donahue.
"Think of the consequences. Would you believe a politician getting up there and asking, 'Do you believe me?'"
Qube's program director is almost as remarkable as the system itself: Scott Kurnit, a New Yorker who at 25 came to the system in June from a career in public TV at Boston's WGBH. "Ther one thing that public TV taught me in preparation for this job was: Serve the audience and don't care about huge numbers," Kurnit says. "This goes one step beyond: Help the audience to tell you what to serve them. Just think of the potential: Buddy Hackett is really hot on the Johnny Carson show, and Johnny turns to the camera and says, "Shoud he stay on longer?' And in 20 seconds he knows if he should bring out another guest or stick with Hackett."
Kurnit cites some of the 20-month old system's highlights:
A Ralph Nader talk on consumer rights resulted in 700 volunteers whose names and phone numbers (on a computer printout) were handed to Nader after he walked out of the TV studio.
Rock musician Todd Rundgren went through a live performance, asking the audience to criticize the show and help him reorder his concert format.
Qube viewers held their own Academy Awards, rarely agreeing with the Hollywood picks.
With a choreographer, Qubers designed a dance.
A town meeting on rezoning was designed so that only Qube subscribers in the district under discussion could vote on the issues.
Qube subscribers were used to help pcik covers for Us magazine and to choose between different TV trailers for the film "China Syndrome."
Even with 30 channels, Qube is already almost saturated with programming, and operators are starting videotapes 2,500 times a month.
Right now Qube offers among its programs feature films, sporting events, guitar lessons, college courses, games that pit one neighborhood against another for prizes, stock-market quotations, comparison shopping guides, 14 hours of special children's programming, the UPI main newswire, Columbus weather information, a continuous TV program listing, an on-the-air ombudsman, three network signals, five channels of continuous stero music, several local channels and a public access channel.
"I'll run anything anybody brings in," says Hauser. "The big worry is always about pornography, but that hasn't been much of a problem. And besides, I don't want to be a censor and I don't know what pronography is."
Warner is currently constructing two new Qube systems in Houston and Cincinnati, where capabilities will be upped to 36 channels.
And Washington is being considered as a future Qube site. But much clarification of Washington's status as a cable community needs to be done by local officials before Qube can become a reality in the nation's capital.
"I'm particularly interested in computer interfacing," says Kurnit. "When there are 2,000 programs ready on a cable, I want to be there. I want to put some electronic name technology in the system, a soap opera with a viewer-determined plot, and some shopping opportunities for airline tickets and mail-order catalogs.
"It's midnight, Saturday. You're stoned, watching 'Saturday Night Live' and on the bottom of the screen the title asks: 'Do you want pizza?' Touch button one and the truck will be at your house in 20 minutes."