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PREVIEWING ON THE WEB: A NIGHT ON THE TOWN

Don't tell my bosses, but I almost played hooky after surfing the Web at work.

Having visited Movielink.com, a Web site that provides film schedules in the Big Apple and 29 other cities, I wanted to sneak out to a nearby theater to catch a Hollywood blockbuster or an art film. Then--fickle New Yorker that I am--I thought instead about seeing a Broadway show, or perhaps a ball game, followed by a meal at a trendy new eatery. To scope out the possibilities, I checked out the CitySearch and Sidewalk sites.

A slew of free city and regional guides such as these have sprung up on the Web lately to help urban denizens and tourists map out a day's or evening's entertainment (table). In the pre-Internet world, folks quizzed friends or explored newspapers and magazines for advice on what to do around town. But local online information guides promise to let people tailor an interactive search to their favorite pastimes at no charge. And unlike print listings, electronic ones can be constantly updated. Done right, the Web sites contain pithy reviews of shows and restaurants and let you add your own two cents for others to see. The better listings also include ticket prices, maps, and directions. In some cases, you can book reservations from your keyboard.

PASSIONS. Microsoft Corp. has placed its heft behind Sidewalk, which currently covers Boston, New York, Seattle, and the Twin Cities, with a half-dozen more metro areas to come by yearend. Rival CitySearch tracks New York, Raleigh-Durham, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Toronto, and several other cities. Cox Interactive Media's city sites include Atlanta and Austin, Tex. Digital City covers 17 metropolitan areas on the Web and 14 on America Online. And Pacific Bell At Hand (www.athand.com) provides exhaustive coverage of the Golden State.

Many search engine companies such as Excite, Lycos, and Yahoo! also are diving into your hometown, providing numerous local links culled from their larger databases. The Yahoo! New York site, for instance, lets you pore through headlines provided by a local radio station and includes links to libraries, sports teams, political parties, and other parochial passions.

For now, the sites only partly live up to their promise. On the plus side at Sidewalk, I typed in ''jazz'' and came up with a roster of performers appearing in New York, along with listings for Circle Line's Jazz Cruise and the movie All That Jazz. I also could indicate the types of food, films, and festivals I preferred, or performers I wanted to see, so that events matching my selections popped up on-screen. Sidewalk also sends weekly E-mail alerts about events of interest. Another nice feature is a listing of last-minute discount theater tickets available at the TKTS booth near Times Square and in the World Trade Center.

But Sidewalk's restaurant listings were inconsistent--some provided little or no details. Moreover, the ''Getting There'' sections might confuse tourists. People needing directions to a restaurant or theater might be told to take the ''1,9 or C,E, to 50th St.'' But nowhere is there any indication that these refer to subway lines. And the positioning of icons on some maps made it difficult to pinpoint locations.

KOSHER DELIS. CitySearch is also a mixed bag. The site offers a well-laid out screen that makes it easy to locate information (arts and entertainment, shops and services). And CitySearch boasts impressive partners such as the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and TicketMaster. As with Sidewalk, you can get E-mail alerts telling you, say, when your favorite singer comes to town. You also can read comments left by other visitors about restaurants, events, or shops--and add your own.

However, I found several mistakes and omissions. My search for ''kosher deli'' yielded only three names in all of New York City. Typing ''kosher delicatessen'' brought up only one. Inexplicably, there was no listing for In the Company of Men, even when the controversial film was drawing sellout crowds. The site also listed incorrect admission prices at one movie house near my office. Good thing I never left work early that day.

Edward C. Baig



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Updated Sept. 18, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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