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Sony Pulls Interactive Games from WebTV

March 01, 2001|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Locked in a financial dispute with Microsoft Corp., Sony Corp. has pulled the plug on two of the most popular interactive TV shows--the interactive versions of "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune."

It's uncertain when or how the interactive aspects of these shows will be reinstated.

The enhanced game shows worked primarily with Microsoft WebTV Plus set-top boxes, allowing viewers to play along with the contestants in the studio. While watching the regular broadcast, viewers with WebTV boxes would be able to post answers on-screen with their remote controls, collect points for correct responses and compete for prizes.

The dispute is particularly ill timed for Microsoft, which this month rolls out a new generation of TV products called "Ultimate TV." Microsoft has touted these shows as a reason to buy these new set-top boxes, which combine video recording with WebTV Plus' interactive TV and Internet access capabilities.

Officials for Microsoft and Sony said they continued to work together on other projects. But the two sides apparently could not agree on whether and how much Microsoft should pay for the interactive content that Sony supplied. Sony stopped providing the interactive signals last week.

"Content has value, and as we are not owners of the platform, we're not comfortable deficit-financing production," said Don Levy, vice president of marketing and communications for Sony Pictures Digital Entertainment. So far, Sony has not been paid a fee by WebTV for its programming.

In Sony's view, the interactive versions of the game shows helped boost the popularity of WebTV. In fact, Microsoft frequently cited the shows when promoting WebTV Plus and Ultimate TV.

Microsoft, on the other hand, argues that its efforts helped launch these interactive shows, but the relationship had reached a new phase. "Putting in all these resources and getting something jump-started is different from continuing something on and on and on," said Carrie Pendolino, spokeswoman for Microsoft's WebTV Networks.

The two game shows are the two most popular syndicated programs on TV. But more than a dozen other shows have interactive enhancements that work with the WebTV Plus technology, including "CSI" on CBS, the first interactive prime-time network drama.

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