FRUSTRATED television viewers everywhere have wanted to talk back to their TV sets from time to time. In Columbus, Ohio, thousands of people are doing just that - and they're being heard.
Without leaving their rooms, television viewers declare their opinions on national and state issues in a daily poll, bid for items in an auction, decide the fate of talent show contestants, direct a reporter's questions and take exams for college credit.
"The age of passive viewing is over," proclaims the brochure for Qube (pronounced "cube"), a pioneer two-way cable TV system developed by Warner Cable Corp. The system, still in its infancy, offers 30 channels and allows viewers to interact with many of the programs. Qube may even reverse our traditional relationship with television sets. It is in the eyes of Warner vice president Leo Murray, "participatory television."
A subsidiary of Warner Communication Corp. Warner Cable is banking on the Columbus experiment, which began last December after a three-year development program, to help determine a new future for cable television, a resource that hasn't met its original growth expectations.
Warner executives are keeping secret the exact number of Qube subscribers, saying only that response has been good and systems are being installed daily. However, there are 100,000 potential Qube subscribers out of Columbus 500,000 community residents. Warner also is being noncommittal about specific future plans although it eventually hopes to extend Qube to some of its 138 other cable operations. "If it works in Columbus," says one Warner executive, "you'll have it soon."
What Qube subscribers have for a base charge of $10.95 a month is access to 30 TV channels, 10 in regular programming. Another 10 offer special payment programs (movies, cultural events) and 10 channels feature free community programs - and participation. Viewers react to what they're watching by pushing one of five "response" buttons on the channel-selector box. The information is fed back to the studio and tabulated immediately.
In one recent daily Qube poll of issues, 40 percent of the respondents said they had tried marijuana. Sixty percent had not. Other polls covered school financing, postal service and statewide gambling.
"You can really find out what people are thinking," says John Russell, a Qube subscriber. "Everything else is supposition." Qube viewers recently debated with Marabel Morgan, author of "Total Woman," on "Columbus Alive," a daily talk-variety show. Viewers taking college courses in accounting or anthropology can tell the teacher to slow down, speed up or signal that they have a question - all with a push of a button.
Ronald Hackathorn, a Qube subscriber, sees the two-way feature as a method of expressing his own ego. He cites one live program in which viewers picked the direction a TV camera took down the street, literally making the film. "It gives you a sense of power," Hackathorn says, "a sense of directing something far away." He feels he is projecting his will - or at least his opinion - outside his home and doesn't doubt he'll remain a subscriber. In the future, Qube may develop shows based on viewers' reactions. It could be exciting, Hackathorn says, to be directing the programming of a station.
In addition to "Columbus Alive," community programming on Qube includes local sports, lessons in backgammon, speed reading, art history and other topics; weather and news reports and price comparisons at local markets.
One channel has a program for preschool children from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. called "Pinwheel" that contains no violence and no commercials.A combination of original material and short films, it is a kind of playhouse and is one of Qube's most popular features, says Vivien Horner, who directs educational programming for Warner. Network television provides very little for the young child, she says, and a great deal of what it does provide is direct sales.