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Taking a Nightly BAR EXAM : Interactive TV at pubs and restaurants hits the right button, testing the trivia skills and quarterbacking guesswork of patrons.

December 31, 1993|JEFF SCHNAUFER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They smoke, drink, cuss at the television screen and glare at you suspiciously when you grab a stool at the bar. But if you want to take somebody on, you'd better bring a dictionary.

Every week in Valley watering holes such as Weber's Place in Reseda, erudite trivia buffs clash with thousands of other players nationwide in interactive television games that have replaced arm wrestling as the barfly's favorite pastime.

"It's mental chewing gum," says 38-year-old Kerry Martin, who regularly plays such interactive trivia games as "Countdown" and "Showdown" at Weber's Place. "I get bored easily. It's amazing how many useless facts you can accumulate over the years. These games give me a charge."

For those who prefer to spend their time in bars lambasting the play-calling of football coaches, an interactive television game called "QB1" lets them feel what it's like to call the plays.

"You get the feeling of being the coach," said Preston Clipper of Glendale, a former high school quarterback who plays "QB1" at Stuart Anderson's Black Angus in Burbank. "You're the one who is either right or wrong."

Produced by NTN Communications in Carlsbad, "QB1," "Countdown" and "Showdown" are among 13 interactive television games broadcast via satellite to "hospitality" outlets, such as bars, hotels and restaurants, nationwide. In the San Fernando Valley, NTN Communications provides the only game in town.

Players, who enjoy the games for free, use a small key pad linked to a television monitor. In trivia games, questions are beamed in over one TV monitor and players use the key pads to punch in their answers. For sports events, players watch the show on a regular television and use the key pad to predict the winner of a horse race or guess the next play of a football, basketball, hockey or baseball game. Players' scores are recorded on a second screen, with games won by accumulating points for correct answers.

NTN's games are also available on home computers linked to one of several computer networks, including General Electric's "GEnie," the ImagiNation Network, Sierra Games and Prodigy. These networks also offer their own menu of games.

No cable company in the Valley carries interactive television, although GTE Main Street cable system offers NTN programming in Cerritos, Carlsbad and Massachusetts.

In the Valley, it is in the bars where the competition becomes a show in itself.

In addition to winning cash prizes or T-shirts that bars offer for top scorers, players flock to the bars to pit their skills against each other and the 1,300 other places that subscribe to the NTN network.

The score-keeping monitors periodically display a leader board, allowing players to compete against each other and form team-like alliances against other bars with NTN across the United States and Canada. The names of the bars with the top scores are displayed in all 1,300 locations.

"It's the Andy Warhol kind of thing. It gets your 15 minutes of fame," says Dan Purner, executive producer of NTN. "There aren't many ways to get your name in lights on a television screen."

"Countdown" is the most frequently played trivia game, offered several times a day in 30-minute rounds with 15 multiple-choice questions and a 20-second time limit on each. Questions cover everything from art to nature. The faster you answer, the more points you get.

Some players, like Martin, answer faster than the time it takes to down a shot of whiskey.

Martin typifies the people who seem drawn to the trivia game: curious, intent, and a little mysterious. He's an unemployed Englishman who lives in Reseda, spends his spare time whizzing through crossword puzzles and earned a first-place nationwide ranking in a regular game of "Countdown" in September.

"I remind everyone of Norm, whoever he was" Martin says, referring to the "Cheers" character, while nurturing a beer and playing "Countdown."

The trivia topics range from music: "Which band's final album was titled, 'The Long Run'?" (answer: the Eagles); to history: "In the 1960s, what country had a movement called the Red Guards?" (answer: China).

For Lori Golden of Tarzana playing trivia games is more than entertainment. It's research.

"I write questions for game shows," says Golden, who works on the "Trivial Pursuit" show for the Family Channel. "People think I'm nuts because I do this all day long and I come here two or three times a week."

Bar managers say it is this devotion to the interactive games that offsets NTN's $1,000 set-up charge and $595 monthly subscriber fee--that and the increased drink sales that patrons' hours behind the key pads produce. Weber's manager, Dave Paraday, says the Monday Night Football crowd often quickly snatches up the 10 key pads.

"For the trivia, we get anything from an Australian to an old lady who know a lot of obsolete facts. People who obviously spent too much time in college," he says. "For the "QB1," we get some very fanatical sports people."

The obsession with "QB1" is evident at the Black Angus in Burbank.

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