Levin: Time to rethink TV

Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin used his first major address to the industry to discuss the future of television as embodied by the full-service network his company is building in Orlando, Fla. It’s a future, he said, that will be marked by a radical rethinking of what television can be, and it will offer tremendous opportunity, especially for those companies that can provide programming for multichannel TV.

Speaking at the Intl. Radio & Television Society’s luncheon yesterday, Levin described an interactive, fiber optic, digital system that he said will revolutionize the way people use television.

“The full-service network is not just the old TV box with bells and whistles stuck on,” Levin said. “Television has ceased to be a simple receiver of signals and is becoming a potent instrument of interactive communication, a source of new choices about how we live, work, inform, entertain and educate ourselves.”

While touting the attributes of the full-service network, Levin also sought to dispel some of the rumors surrounding the new technology’s impact.

“I will never sell our magazines,” Levin declared. “Our magazines and books represent a highly profitable line of business with terrific potential for growth. The full-service network enhances the value of our libraries of print and photographs, all of which digitization will make instantly accessible.”

Continuing to extol the Orlando service, he said: “The full-service network is not merely a multiplication of existing channel capacity so viewers can choose among 500 versions of ‘The Amy Fisher Story.’ It is full-motion video on an ordinary television set … a new kind of fiber-rich cable network in which interactivity and digital switching and storage, in effect, give each viewer the ability to be his or her own programmer.”

Levin said the full-service network will have a myriad of practical applications for the consumer. “It has the capacity to allow us to tailor educational programming to specific homes and individual students,” Levin said. “(It) will bring a new age of convenience to consumers. Home shopping will quickly cease resembling a skit on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and be replaced by sophisticated interactive catalogs.” And the full-service network will finally make video teleconferencing a reality for businesses, he said.

Levin said such a system will be hungry for programming and those who own copyrights will have the most to gain . “Don’t take my word for it,” Levin said. “Talk to Bill Gates … or John Sculley … or John Malone … or Barry Diller … or Ray Smith at Bell Atlantic … all of whom are looking for ways to get in or to expand their interest in the copyright business.”

Levin noted that Time Warner has already received 80 proposals from hardware and software companies — including Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Intel, Apple and Toshiba — for equipping and running its Orlando network.

Levin does not believe the narrowcasting ability of the full-service network would draw advertising away from print and broadcast.

“Narrowcasting is going to expand the advertising pie, not shrink it,” Levin said. “It’s going to allow many small and medium-sized local businesses a chance to use television in ways they never could, directing their messages to the exact streets and neighborhoods where their customers and potential customers live. (But) mass media like broadcast and magazines aren’t going to shrivel and die. The need to reach the widest possible audience will always be an ingredient in the media mix.”

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