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WebTV doesn't fly in Gotham

Holy incompatibility! WebTV is supposed to bring flashy Internet content to TV sets everywhere, but the Batman site and others prove different.

Holy incompatibility! WebTV is supposed to bring flashy Internet content and online entertainment to televisions everywhere, but most of its users can't see the dynamic Web pages for the upcoming movie Batman & Robin.

When WebTV users call up the page from the comfort of their couches, a curt message appears: "Unfortunately, you are using a nonframes-compatible browser." (A browser that supports frames divides the screen into separate, distinct areas drawn from multiple documents.)

The problem is another example of the hurdles facing the marriage of the PC with the TV, a move that is supposed to bring the masses online. Hollywood Web sites, such as the one promoting the latest Batman film, are the type of entertainment that users of these low-cost devices will want, analysts say.

Ironically, the Batman & Robin site, one of the most widely visited movie sites on the Web nowadays, runs a banner ad from Microsoft, which just bought WebTV for $425 million.

The movie is expected to be a summer hit. But there are other high-traffic sites that don't appear for some WebTV users, including the one for America Online.

Later this summer, Oracle subsidiary NCI plans to launch devices to compete with WebTV. The market for TV-based access devices is supposed to expand to 12.7 million households, or 22 percent of the consumer online market by the year 2002, according to a study by Jupiter Communications. But this is unlikely to occur without more support from developers.

WebTV chief executive Steve Perlman conceded today that there's room for improvement. "We shouldn't underestimate the amount of heuristics that go on inside the client that make material originally designed for a PC screen go on a TV screen."

The problem also stems from Hollywood's heavy dependence on Web bells and whistles, such as plug-ins for animation, sound, and video. The Batman & Robin site, for example, requires Macromedia's Flash. It has games, audio clips, and downloadable trailers from the movie, which opens June 20. Many PC users don't have Flash installed, either, although it can be easily downloaded.

WebTV now is upgrading its software so Web sites such as Batman & Robin will be accessible to all its users, Perlman added. (About 1,000 users can already see the page, as they already have the upgraded WebTV software.) When the box was introduced, it was behind the PC in terms of compatibility with plug-ins, he said. "Now we're getting to the point where we're one of the platforms that matter."

The entire user base will be upgraded to the company's latest software later this month, according to a company representative. Unlike desktop browsers, WebTV is automatically updated when users dial in to the service, so users will be able to check out Batman, Robin, Batgirl, and their archrivals, the representative added.

Last week, WebTV announced a developer's program to help companies create material for consumers who access the Internet using WebTV. The new program includes development tools, such as the WebTV Simulator for desktop computers. It also addresses viewer behavior and how to refine Web sites for particular kinds of viewers, and features traffic reports and usability studies.

"A lot of sites don't work on WebTV," said Don Buckley, vice president for Warner Bros. Online, which created the site. Despite the hype, only a small number of the devices are installed--56,000 at last count, he noted.

Batman & Robin may wind up being the entertainment company's most viewed Web site. It could exceed 10 million page views by the time the movie is launched, Buckley added.

Still, Buckley said he is hopeful that the idea will catch on. "I love the notion of the device. I can't wait until tomorrow."