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Where’s the vision for new gizmos?

Scan the news stories of the moment and you can get a quick glimpse of the brave new digital future.

Your gizmos will be portable. Also personal. They will be interlinked so you won’t miss anything you really want to see. And you can insulate yourself from everything (including ads) you want to duck.

Sound enticing? You’ll watch “Lost” on your video iPod, catch sports via your Slingbox, TiVo movies on your PocketDish. And your mobile devices will be hooked up to your home TV set as well as your computer. Hence, if you like something you see while waiting for your flight, you will have another stab at it when you get home. Unless, of course, your flashy new devices decide to commit you to techno hell.

Amid this digital blur, you may have noticed that Variety‘s Centennial issue last week dealt not with cell phones and Slingboxes but rather with what you may or may not see on them. It focused on the pictures, not the pipelines, and it was a very deliberate decision. At a moment when techno-hype reigns supreme, we wanted to remind readers about past legacies and the icons who shaped them.

It’s not really about the past but about the future. Will the Brave New Digital World be truly liberating or will it merely be portable? Will our toys put us in touch with new voices and new ideas or will three or four corporate giants grasp a chokehold on the media?

I think it’s great that “Desperate Housewives” gets a window on video iPods, but it would also be great to discover new films of varying length and subject matter emanating from a vibrant landscape of new sources.

Every interest group has its own private worries about the new technology. The studios fret about piracy, the guilds about paydays. The TV station groups are upset about competition, and so are the exhibitors.

Page through Variety‘s Centennial issue, however, and then confront yet one more issue: Can emerging technology help us recapture the richness of the past?

Personally, I’d like some fresh zing in my Slingbox.

War-weary aud

It’s an unlikely success story in an unlikely place: The TV business in Iraq is booming.

Over the last two years some 30 TV stations have sprung up and ratings are strong. While the outside world may be obsessed with Saddam Hussein’s trial and battle casualties, the Iraqis themselves are glued to reality shows, soaps and old Hollywood movies.

All of which reminds us of one sure-fire way to boost ratings: If viewers are too scared to go outside their homes, then even the Iraqi rip-off of “American Idol” becomes must-see TV.

This is made clear in the cover story filed by Ali Jaafar in Variety this week. Returning from his latest Middle Eastern visit, our correspondent was impressed by the proliferation of once-banned satellite dishes, as well as the sudden emergence of some 180 newspapers and a myriad of radio stations. While Saddam once monopolized the flow of information, Iraqis have now become avid consumers of ideas and entertainment from all sources, including the Internet.

Reacting to the bloody insurgency, escapist entertainment understandably is in great demand. It’s a lot more inviting to watch an old movie than a news report — even if the key source of movies turns out to be the vast personal video library of Uday Hussein, the dictator’s notorious son who was a closet film nut.

What no one knows, of course, is what impact all this may have on the Iraqi people. The White House has always believed that the precepts of democracy were as instantly transportable as, well, “American Idol” — a bizarre notion.

On the other hand, there are few cases in history in which any nation has been so suddenly exposed to a whirlwind of new styles and ideas, as has Iraq. “TV is magic — it enters every home, rich or poor,” says one Middle Eastern media baron. “The public wants to see something other than bombs and blood.”

Well, the “magic” is now at hand. Some of the shows are understandably clunky. Iraq’s new home makeover show has the sexy title “Labor and Materials,” but at least it’s a show.

Could Jon Stewart and Bill Maher be far behind?

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