Superhighway arteries merge at UCLA summit

UCLA WILL PLAY HOST TO AN EVENT in Royce Hall next week with so much firepower that the only missing aspect may be an Andrew Lloyd Webber score.

The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ all-day Superhighway Summit will be the TV industry’s answer to Yalta, with heavyweights Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Rupert Murdoch, John Malone, Gerald Levin and others convening to share their views on what amounts to the future of mass media.

The centerpiece, for those with well-toned attention spans, will be Vice President Al Gore’s address outlining the Clinton administration’s legislative agenda in regard to developing the National Information Infrastructure, which, based on that title, promises to be less entertaining than Gore’s appearance on “Late Show With David Letterman.” (At present, rumors of a halftime performance by Roger Clinton haven’t panned out.)

The executive lineup that has agreed to attend — whose joint assets could roughly finance an attempted acquisition of most of the Midwest — is a major coup for the TV Academy, which under president Richard Frank is eager to re-establish its credentials as an industry forum.

Moreover, the turnout underscores a sense that television, cable, computers and telephone companies are converging, reaching a crucial point in terms of what forms those industries will take into the next century, as well as what alliances will be struck.

THAT CONCERN IS DEMONSTRATED by one of the panels, “Infobankingcomputingshoppingtainment: The Blurred Lines of Programming.” Implicit in the title, at least, is the scenario of a fully integrated system where entertainment, shopping and various other transactions are all conveniently made over telephone lines and computer keyboards.

Still, at least from this couch potato’s-eye-view, the more illustrative panel is “Master of the Universe: The Consumer,” since that’s who will dictate which road the information superhighway ultimately travels.

Overlooked at times in the crush to explore interactivity, video-on-demand and other services is the inherent passivity of most entertainment, and just how entrenched that system is with viewers.

New Year’s Day is always a good example, as millions blob out comfortably for hours in front of the set, working off hangovers by watching hour after hour of college football. Another demonstration is only a few weeks away, when more than 40% of the nation’s TV households will simultaneously tune in to the Super Bowl.

Thus far, the television audience has shown it wants more variety, that it enjoys surfing through a multitude of channels, that it likes having news and sports and movies instantly at its collective fingertips. As yet, however, there’s limited evidence that people want to play along, sing along or decide the outcomes of the programs they’re watching.

Granted, there is a generation of teens and toddlers who’ve grown up with videogames and other interactive uses of their TV, but those same groups sit for hours at a time watching ABC’s “TGIF” block, or “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place,” or the Fox Children’s Network’s “X-Men” and “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”

Even with the growth of home shopping, the vast majority of consumers prefer to kick the tires, as it were, when making a purchase. It also bears noting that a third of TV households pass on basic cable, and its paltry 30 to 50 selections , much less evincing a demand for 500 channels.

Any discussion of an information superhighway, as a result, can’t neglect the issue of viewer demand and application — making this wonderful world of technology simple enough so that all cable- and computerphobes will want to hop on the bandwagon.

If those issues aren’t addressed, then next week’s summit — and the furor surrounding the information superhighway in general — will leave itself open to criticisms that have been leveled at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage productions: long on glitz and pyrotechnics but hollow at the core.

THE PLAYER, PART 2: If February’s issue of Vanity Fair can be trusted, Paramount chief exec Martin Davis has proven again that Robert Altman and Michael Tolkin were right: The rumors are always true.

Davis is quoted as acknowledging that NBC and Paramount engaged in nearly two years of off-and-on negotiations regarding the studio’s acquisition of the network, which NBC officials repeatedly insisted was not for sale and had not been for sale — much to the chagrin of reporters, who during that stretch heard a flurry of new rumors every few months.

Those scenarios were often wild yet stunningly intricate, with reports at various times that NBC would cut back to 15 hours a week of primetime to facilitate a merger (as a means of ducking the financial interest and syndication rules), or that the network would be parceled out — the entertainment division going to Paramount, the news and sports divisions to Turner Broadcasting — while General Electric retained the NBC stations.

Now, Davis says there were talks with GE chief Jack Welch, and that regulatory concerns helped scuttle the deal.

A small matter now, perhaps, but for those who must sort out the truth from the mixed salad of rumors, gossip and self-interest constantly being tossed around, it comes as a nice reminder that where there’s smoke, there’s usually some fire.

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