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What's New on the Tube? The Rerun Network : Television: The service allows you to call up shows you missed--for a charge added to your monthly bill. Test runs provide a look at what might be programmed when cable channels grow to 3 digits.

August 27, 1994|ROBERT EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ENCINITAS — Some 1,500 cable subscribers in this coastal community of long, skinny beaches and shrinking flower fields are spending an endless summer toe-testing the interactive waters of a new enterprise, Your Choice TV, the self-proclaimed "television of the future."

Your Choice TV combines some new television technologies with some slightly used programs, allowing viewers to order reruns from a slate of 24 current network and cable shows.

It works this way:

Say you missed the previous evening's Jay Leno show. If you're a test participant in two chosen areas of Encinitas, the Dimension Cable company has entrusted you with a new remote control and converter box. With the set tuned to Channel 54's menu, you see that a rerun of "The Tonight Show" is available on Channel 71. To access that channel, you enter 7 and 1 on the remote control and hit the "order" key. Then, for almost the next 24 hours, you have the previous night's "Tonight Show" on 71, allowing you to watch it when you want, hour after hour, reel to reel, virtually nonstop until the next Leno show is offered.

It's a first for television: the almost-instant rerun.

And almost as instant is the 79 cents that's added to your monthly cable bill, establishing another television first: a price tag for watching reruns.

There's more than Leno, though:

The daytime soap "All My Children" is available for 99 cents each day; "Saturday Night Live" for $1.29; an HBO movie for $1.49, even if you don't subscribe to the pay channel; the most recent "20/20" and "PrimeTime Live" shows for 99 cents each; "ESPN Fitness Pros" for $1.29; "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" for 99 cents.

"It's a gas," reports Nancy Palmer, a Leucadia manicurist. "You order what you want and the machine says 'thank you.' I like the idea of being in control of my viewing. Maybe I fell asleep during a show or came in toward the end. Now I can order it and see it when I want, or have friends over."

She says she's ordered "All My Children," "20/20," "Saturday Night Live" and "The Tonight Show." But she doesn't like all the offerings: " 'SpeedWeek,' nature shows, 'Booknotes': Give me a break."

"It's funny how many times you realize nothing is on. But now I have a chance to order something I might like," Palmer says.

Mimi Neville, an advertising salesperson, echoes the thought. "It's a nice option to have with your television, but the choices are not so great. I've only ordered 'Saturday Night Live' so far. Twice. But you know, here it is a Wednesday night and right this minute there is nothing I want to see."

Since last fall, Discovery Communications, the parent of cable's Discovery Channel, has been rolling out its rerun service in a series of four-month tests in different parts of the country, budgeting close to $7 million for the effort, partnering with various networks and local cable companies that have upgraded, fiber-optic systems.

The Encinitas test is Discovery's latest, the first in the West, and one of the more ambitious in that 24 of Dimension's 78 channels are dedicated to nothing but reruns. Earlier tests offered eight or 16 channels. A 24-channel test in Mt. Prospect, Ill., is coupled with several pay-per-view channels--not the case in Encinitas--and is called "Intelligent Television."

Whether choice or intelligent, the tests provide another glimpse of what might be programmed when cable channels grow to three digits.

While pay-per-view and other current interactive services require telephone ordering, users of Your Choice TV never have to leave their remote controls. It's the key to this system--see something you want, push a button or two, and the order goes out, along with the billing. Necessary information, such as your credit card numbers and your address, can be programmed into the system.

Beyond the current tests, there's another possible use for the new technology: home shopping, where viewers can punch the same "order" button when they see something on the screen. No telephone calls. No credit card recitations.

But for now the Encinitas test is concentrated on getting subscribers familiar with the system's workings, and Discovery people are learning which reruns sell and which technical aspects need improving. The test will help decide such questions as whether viewers act on impulse, desire or boredom when they get a chance to design their own program schedules, and whether they will pay for something they previously could have had by loading a VCR--and, if so, how much?

Nancy Stover, Your Choice TV senior vice president and general manager, said that in previous tests the company has found that:

* Shows such as "Saturday Night Live" have peak sales in the immediate period following broadcast, indicating that there's a "gee-I-missed-it" audience that could be served.

* Some shows have steady rerun-order rates with no peaks or valleys, indicating that viewers go shopping when nothing else appeals to them.

* Some pay-channel subscribers will pay for reruns of movies that were available previously.

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