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NBC to cue up PC "convergence"

The TV network and technology company DigitalConvergence launch CueTV, a technology that acts like a remote control linking TV programming with the Web.

Millions of TV sets will be hooked up to new wires beginning this summer--if NBC and technology company DigitalConvergence have their way.

On Monday, the two companies launched CueTV, a technology that acts like a remote control linking TV programming with the Web. The debut is set to kick off an NBC giveaway of $400,000 in prizes from June 13 to July 11.

To ensure the promotion gets off the ground, beginning this week more than 7,000 RadioShack retail outlets around the country will start giving away millions of technology kits, which include a special cable and software for the PC.

The new service is a first for television, but it mimics earlier efforts to link offline and online media.

Last September, privately held DigitalConvergence started giving away millions of scanners through deals with Wired and Forbes magazines as well as with RadioShack to bridge print and online media. The mouse-sized scanners were used to swipe tiny codes, or "cues," in print ads and editorial to find information about a product or service online.

Similarly, audio cues embedded in TV programming on NBC will send a signal to a computer in the same room. The sound will prompt the PC to load a related Web page even if the computer is not connected to the Internet at the time. The next time the viewer logs on to the Net, the pages will launch.

Such technology is meant to improve on the concept of "convergence," in which the benefits of TV and the Internet are united in one device. Set-top boxes from the likes of Microsoft's WebTV have been building on this promise for years, but some say the technology isn't fast or proficient enough yet. Because more households are "telewebbing"--using the PC while watching TV--technology that links the two faster could take off, analysts say.

"Everybody's waiting for this magical, convergence set-top box, but it's not as fast as the telewebbing combination because you're already online and you get right to the site," said Richard Doherty, director of research for the Envisioneering Group, based Seaford, N.Y. "The set-top boxes have a big delay."

Doherty said more than 10 percent of households are telewebbing, and a little more than 1 percent of U.S. households have a PC equipped with a cable TV tuner, meaning they can receive a TV connection on a PC.

Seeking to capture more of this population, Sony recently announced that it would ship a product in June that lets consumers record TV programs onto DVDs from their computer.

"This is going to catch on with young consumers because they want the additional information now; they want the book or T-shirt or music trailer now," Doherty said.

The audio cues, which will be coupled with a small C icon in the corner of the TV screen, will first sound Thursday on NBC during a promotion for its NBCIQ sweepstakes. This giveaway, which begins June 13, will test viewers' knowledge of NBC shows via a trivia contest set up on a personalized Web site.

General Electric's NBC is devoting between $5 million and $7 million in airtime to introduce the technology. The TV network and DigitalConvergence are banking on viewers' longstanding love of winning prizes to create a buzz for the technology.

"They're going to want to win prizes," said Jay Feldman, executive vice president of DigitalConvergence's media group. "When people already have the computer and TV in the same room, which is a lot of people now, and they're watching television...this is the new thing that's not been done before and they'll want to do it."

But if adoption of print-to-Web technology is any indication, it may not be that simple. DigitalConvergence has distributed millions of CueCats since September, but they failed to attract a substantial audience. At least one DigitalConvergence partner confirmed that demand for the CueCat has been extremely weak so far.

Billed as a significant convergence of online and offline marketing, the CueCat raised a stink last fall among consumer privacy advocates, who said the device surreptitiously collected data on individuals. Although those concerns have faded, the print-to-Web scanner has much to prove.

Still, DigitalConvergence said that the NBC promotion is just the beginning of what consumers will see in the future. The company plans to link TV advertising and programs with the audio cues.

"Unlike 18 months ago, when we used the television to advance a company's main business, now what's happening is that we're using the Internet to promote business and TV viewership," Feldman said.