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Diversity is key challenge

Chief execs at six of the top entertainment and telecommunications companies said that as the infopike gets paved, it ought to be done by more than one contractor.

At the TV Academy’s Superhighway Summit, the CEOs cautioned that without competition for programming, viewers’ choices could be diminished.

“I’d like to start a news channel that competes with CNN,” said Rupert Murdoch, chairman and CEO of News Corp.

But to get that channel on the air, it would have to be carried by two of CNN’s biggest backers, cable giants Tele-Communications Inc. and Warner Cable.

“This gentleman (Gerald M. Levin) and Mr. (John) Malone won’t give me the time of day,” Murdoch said.

Levin runs Time Warner and Malone runs TCI. A feisty Michael D. Eisner, chairman and CEO of Walt Disney Co., concurred. As long as two or more companies rule the pipeline, Disney will always have a market.

“God forbid Gerry Levin is the only one there,” Eisner said in one of the testier exchanges of the day. “Because if (Sony Corp. of America chairman) Mickey Schulhof is No. 1 at the box office, no one will know about it.”

Murdoch’s comments underscored one problem in defining the so-called superhighway: Competing companies are unlikely to divulge their detailed plans for the infopike at public forums like Tuesday’s. But only a few companies bravely insist they have no plans at all: Eisner reiterated Disney’s lack of interest in investing in the infopike.

“Right now, I don’t get it,” Eisner said. “It makes me nervous. We figure, if we don’t get it, we might as well not invest in it.” Judging from the number of cellular telephones glued to ears throughout the day, many of the 2,000 or so audience members were already well on their way down the high-tech highway — industryites are hopping on the schmooze circuit, if not the infopike.

Among those observing the events were Warner Bros. prexy Terry Semel, Jake Eberts of Paris-based Allied Films, HBO chairman/CEO Michael Fuchs and Mike Medavoy, who resigned last week as chairman of TriStar Pictures.

Levin and Schulhof softpedaled the notion of one controlling gatekeeper. Instead, the new technology will make it even easier for consumers to choose.

“It’s clear that programming is king,” Levin said. “Some people are going to want to take a wild ride on the digital side.”

Said Schulhof: “Hardware is still the enabling technology. We may not make as much money on it. But without it, we couldn’t sell the software.”

And all of the execs accepted Vice President Al Gore’s challenge to provide pipelines to schools, libraries and hospitals by the year 2000. Each of the companies said they are already working toward meeting that goal.

“The goal will be achieved long before the challenge has been stated,” said Philip J. Quigley, prez/CEO of Pacific Bell. “I think we’ll beat the target.”

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