Road scholars mixed

Academy of Television Arts & Sciences president Richard Frank clearly set the tone for Tuesday’s Superhighway Summit at UCLA in his opening remarks, saying, “Everyone is guessing and groping” as to what the future holds.

While morning panels generally spoke of the inevitability and relative speed of wholesale innovations and change, afternoon sessions with programmers and marketers — charged with pondering consumer demand for those services — remained decidedly mixed, insisting that programming would still drive the business and that technology had better be very simple or risk scaring off and alienating viewers.

Among the yeasayers was Tele-Communications Inc. CEO John Malone, who said even if nothing comes of the notion of interactivity and people remain content to simply watch TV, improvements to the network can already be financed with existing uses.

“The evolution is not risky,” Malone said. “The core business will be better. The bulk of the revenues to support this infrastructure already exists.”

QVC Networks chairman Barry Diller said, “The ease and convenience of this … is impossible to match.”

Mindful of the explosion of viewing alternatives in the offing, he asked during a post-panel press conference, “How can diversity be a bad thing?”

While the hardware business already exists and has a stable base, programmers and database operators are the ones that may face the most risk. “That’s where there will be some road kill,” said Richard C. Notebaert, president and chief operating officer of Ameritech Corp., the Chicago Baby Bell.

All communication companies, however, face some peril in trying to foresee what’s ahead, with Frank calling chief execs “riverboat gamblers” because of the uncertainty as to how the superhighway will take shape.

“The pitfalls will be if you get married too early to one technology … You don’t want to bet the ranch on any one of these things,” noted Comcast president Brian Roberts.

The other potential losers may be retailers, who stand to lose a huge chunk of their business to home-shopping channels. “It will be easier to buy a shirt from Hong Kong than it will be to buy it from the mall,” said Lawrence J. Ellison, president and CEO of Oracle Corp., a huge software firm.

Some panelists tuned into the technology maintain the key selling point may not be programming, but rather the ability to create a digital community.

“It’s not interacting with your TV, it’s interacting with other people,” said Stephen M. Case, president and CEO of America Online Inc., an interactive computer database service. “And if you miss that, you’ve missed the entire meeting.”

Even Diller commented on that ability to create community on the America Online electronic bulletin boards. “You see an intimacy that’s really remarkable ,” he said.

For all the happy talk about the brave new world of interactive multimedia, however, a handful of the panelists urged caution as the infopike gets paved.

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened since the printing press and we have to develop it with care,” said Alan Kay, a fellow at Apple Computer.

Among the concerns is equal access for all social classes and geographic areas, a point underscored in Vice President Al Gore’s address.

“After you build the highway, will the neighborhood still be there?” said Robert L. Johnson, founder and CEO of Black Entertainment Television. “How many people will be brought into the new economy? Without diversity of ownership, you will not get diversity of ideas.”

The afternoon session of programmers, in addition to a lively exchange of banter, was notable for its clear skepticism about viewer demand for radical change in the existing system, while proffering the generally held view that there will be an explosion of choices but not necessarily programming casualties.

“I don’t think anything will disappear,” said Fox Broadcasting chairman Lucie Salhany, who anticipates that technological innovations “willexpand, but won’t dramatically change what we do.”

Although ABC is testing video-on-demand service and has said the future may offer opportunities for broadcasters to multiplex, ABC TV Network Group prez Robert Iger agreed. “What will be on is what anybody would want to be on,” he said.

Although all the programmer participants discussed some intent to explore more interactive programming, they also cited a general public desire for passive entertainment and shared viewing experiences — calling into question the prospects for video on demand.

“The notion of disconnecting humanity, that’s not what people want,” said Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. “They want the communal experience.”

Katzenberg added that innovations could simply shift the financial equation in the same way features have created their own ancillary markets. Domestic box office, he noted, now accounts for only 20% of total revenues, about half its share from a decade ago and less than a third of what it contributed to the equation 15 years back.

Besides initiating an ongoing gag about the dismal box office for Disney’s “Cabin Boy,” the Disney exec engaged in ongoing banter with Turner Entertainment Group prexy Scott M. Sassa, who said his parents were “about Jeffrey’s age.” Katzenberg also teased Iger, who said ABC wouldn’t want to merge with an entity that would compromise the integrity of ABC News, alluding to reported talks with King World, which distributes “Inside Edition.”

In a panel on the consumer role in the superhighway equation, at least one member saw a future for the sort of technology that would essentially allow the viewer to become his or her own personal programmer. “In the late 1990s, people don’t want 500 channels. They want their own channel,” said Silicon Graphics chairman Edward M. McCracken.

Still, New York Times culture editor Paul Goldberger and advertising exec Jerry Della Femina counseled caution, warning to ensure the use of new technology it must be simplified. “The consumer’s really going to turn off on it if we don’t,” Della Femina said.

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