Odds favor interactive

Showbiz players afraid to admit they don’t understand “interactive” can come out of the closet. Three of the entertainment industry’s most powerful moguls admitted Wednesday that they don’t know what it all means either.

John Malone thinks gambling will be a hit on interactive cable,More coverage of the Western Cable Show, pages 2 and 8.

Rupert Murdoch predicts couch potatoes will want to watch movie stars and not much else, and Ted Turner wonders how people who can’t program simple VCRs will browse through computerized TV menus with thousands of options.

But they all think interactive is the Next Big Thing.

In an unusual gathering of heavyweights, the three industry leaders spoke on a panel to open the 1993 Western Cable Show in Anaheim. They were joined by Trip Hawkins, founder/chairman of 3DO, a multimedia-player manufacturer.

Befitting his status as the youthful entrepreneur, Hawkins spoke eloquently of an interactive future that can’t be conceived of in conventional Hollywood terms — although he could give no clear idea of what the public wants.

But all the panelists agreed that the next step will be finding user-friendly technology to guide viewers through the digital torrent.

Malone, president/CEO of Tele-Communications Inc., even suggested cable could drive themob out of the numbers business by turning cable TV subscribers into home lottery players.

He may have been kidding, but the biggest cable operator in the country added that of all the untapped programming ideas on the landscape, “games of skill for prizes” to viewers at home will “become the largest business over the next five years.”

Malone also denied reportsthat TCI invested $ 1 billion in Carolco Pictures to get the rights to run all of its movies on pay-per-view before their theatrical run. Although the deal as announced suggested that PPV premieres were essential to the plan, Malone said, “It makes no sense to put video exhibition ahead of theatrical exhibition on a regular basis.” For an occasional Carolco theatrical, Malone said TCI might do a PPV sneak preview “at a vastly increased price.”

Murdoch, chairman/CEO of Fox parent News Corp. Ltd., said, “A movie is five times as good on a theater screen as it is on a TV in the home.” But he also promised that “people will be making billions of transactions a year calling up movies on pay-per-view.” Fox has con-trolling interest with Malone in Request TV , the largest PPV distributor in the U.S.

The lack of pause control in conventional PPV is a major drawback, said Turner, chairman of Turner Broadcasting System. And even if PPV movies on demand fulfill all of the hopes of boosters, he said, “The bulk of the viewing will still go to the three major broadcast networks and the cable networks.”

Malone, a Turner shareholder, acknowledged that “promotion is the name of the game” in the video-on-demand of the future. “We have to make it easy for viewers to navigate through” all of the video offerings.

Another potential drawback, Murdoch said, is the amount of money cable subscribers will have to pay to tap into all of the movies and new services.

Malone is merging his company with Bell Atlantic, one of many phone companies making their presence felt at this year’s cable confab.

While the convention has made a display of opening its camp to the telcos, Turner was not as polite as other cablers. “This could be the last cable convention,” he said. “If it is, then it’s been a great 20-year ride. I suppose we’ll try to adjust to telephone-company ownership.” Malone told him not to worry: “The telcos have great retirement plans.”

Turner poked fun at some of the wilder interactive notions. “Do we really want a situation where we can stop a movie in the middle and call up a happy endingor a sad ending? But I like the idea of sports interactivity … I’d have had the Braves beat Philadelphia,” he said, referring to his Atlanta baseball team’s loss in the National League Championship Series.

While no one could guess how much interactivity home auds really want, 3DO’s Hawkins predicted, “There will be a spectacular increase in the amount of money people spend on enter-tainment,” and much of that will be home-based “as people live farther from cities and as crime increases.”

Brainstorming on possible new revenue streams, Malone said a person could pay a monthly subscription fee to their cable operator to become eligible to compete for prizes against on-air contestants battling on a gameshow like “Wheel of Fortune.”

A setup like that could be just as illegal as the numbers rackets, Jonathan Goodson, president and CEO of Mark Goodson Prods., said in an interview. His company is an owner of the Game Show Channel, a proposed ad-supported cable network that plans a summer startup.

According to Goodson, all three elements exist in the Malone idea that would make it against the law: It awards prizes, there are elements of chance involved , and the home participant has to pay a “consideration” to gain entree to the giveaway.

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