The future of TV unfolds, but is it all Barry Diller?

“I HAVE SEEN THE FUTURE, and it works,” was the famous pronouncement of Lincoln Steffens upon touring the Soviet Union seven decades ago. “I have seen the future, and it is Barry Diller,” is what several important publications have been telling us these last few days.

In a sudden burst of breathless prose, the New Yorker, Time Magazine and the New York Times Magazine, among others, all have informed us about Barry Diller’s apocalyptic vision — one that will change the face of mass communications and more. “I really believe that this is part of the architecture of a new world,” the Times quotes Diller as intoning.

What has Barry Diller done to be anointed as the biggest innovator since Galileo? He has invested $ 25 million in the QVC Network, that’s what.

The What? It’s home shopping, folks. It’s Joan Rivers pitching her jewelry line and Vanna White peddling Vanna dolls. It’s trinkets and toys and household kitsch beamed to lonely ladies sitting at home locked in a shopping frenzy.

I should inject at this point that I happen to like Barry Diller and am pleased he’s found a fresh outlet for his boundless energy. I’m just a bit perplexed that his business venture would generate almost as much ink as the creation of the atom bomb.

True, his opening salvo sounded mouthwatering. QVC was not what it seemed to be; rather it was the cornerstone of a multimedia enterprise aimed at mobilizing all the technology poised to transform TV — fiber optics, digital compression and the rest. It’s the on-ramp leading to the long-awaited electronic superhighway.

There’s nothing wrong with the Diller Dialectic. The only problem is that, as filtered through its chroniclers, the implication is projected that Diller is a lonely visionary at play in the fields of the new technology. This is especially ironic in view of the fact that the big boys from Time Warner were ambling around Washington all week, proselytizing at the FCC and the White House on behalf of their own unique project — a scheme that will go into operation before the end of the year in Orlando, Fla.

What Time Warner calls its Full Service Network is not just a toy for home shoppers. It appears to be the first switched, broadband, multimedia telecommunications system offering a wide range of interactive services to homes , schools and businesses.

THE IMPLICATIONS FOR THE FILM, advertising, TV and video businesses are breathtaking. The Orlando audience by year’s end will be able to order up on demand between 300 and 500 movies. Watching these films, they can fast-forward, rewind or do anything else they want, but without a VCR at their fingertips.

Theoretically, the folks in Orlando before long also will be able to rearrange their TV schedules, so that they can opt to watch “Monday Night Football” and then see “Murphy Brown” when they’ve run out of pretzels and beer. And they’ll be able to order a lot more than Vanna dolls; they can go through the entire L.L. Bean catalog on television and summon up whatever they want.

Also available to Orlando viewers will be interactive educational services offered in conjunction with local schools, plus interactive video games that customers will be able to play against other network subscribers. Businesses will obtain video conferencing and high-speed data transfer.

“Barry Diller gets great press, but he’s a programmer, not a cable operator,” said one seer of the new technology. “The QVC folks will have to cope with changes of technology as well as with cable operators. They have the capability to raise a lot of money, but they also confront an abundance of competition.”

Mind you, no one is biting their fingernails, fretting about whether Barry Diller and his friends can measure up to their competitors. The ubiquitous John Malone is in his corner, for one thing. And, as the Times reminded us this week, so are Calvin Klein, Diane Von Furstenberg and lot of other glitzy types who are making pilgrimages to QVC headquarters in West Chester, Pa.

BUT EXPERTS IN THE FIELD OBSERVE that the QVC venture could confront some intriguing questions:

  • What will be the attitude of the Clinton administration if QVC merges with the Malone-owned Home Shopping Network, thus creating a potential home shopping oligopoly?

  • Will consumer activists ultimately target QVC for attack on the grounds that it virtually hypnotizes binge shoppers with its array of available-on-demand goodies?

  • What new competitors might suddenly emerge from the shadows? The deep-pocketed telephone companies, for example. Look at high-tech history and you see a litany of whales swallowing minnows.

  • Since Diller was less than excited about coexisting with the disciplined, extremely conservative Rupert Murdoch, will life with the even more conservative and steely John Malone prove more felicitous? Diller is a maverick and something of a loner. Is QVC the right venue for him?

In its report titled “Communacopia,” Goldman Sachs surveyed the high-tech landscape and came to the predictable conclusion that “a true revolution in the delivery of entertainment, information, transactional and telecommunication services” is at hand.

The worthy soldiers of Goldman Sachs attempted to sort through all the companies circling around this revolution in an effort to determine who would benefit the most. It’s a confusing exercise: Everybody seems to be in bed with everyone else. Even Time Warner, for example owns a 10% piece of Diller’s QVC, whose stock continued to surge last week. (It’s soared 29% since the start of the year.)

To some extent, thus, everyone will benefit. Unless, of course, the technology is so imposing — and confusing — that the consumer will be left in his living room, immobilized, helplessly trying to figure out which buttons to press to orchestrate the symphony of options theoretically at his command.

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