Everybody Wants To Get Into The Act

In the days before cable Internet access, a plea to the cable companies to Get It.

The cable industry has the greatest bandwidth to the home in the country. Hundreds of discrete, full-bodied video signals simultaneously beaming through fiber and down coax seem like a dream come true to this computer enthusiast brought up on a 300 baud modem and now limping through his middle years at 28.8 bps.

Why then, are the great video-on-demand experiments bringing in less then profitable results? Why are Bob and Mildred Couchpotato not leaping at the chance to go cyber-shopping on their TV set? Why have they only used this great leap forward like another Nintendo GameBoy? Because it’s a different medium. You’re asking them to carve their steak with a letter opener or mow the lawn with a weed-whacker.

There are two glories of television; one that will never change and one that is slipping away more every day. Television will always provide that wonderful, restful, relaxing experience of letting go. One button and the world slips away. The bills aren’t due. The kids aren’t in trouble. The boss isn’t yelling. In thirty minutes (with breaks for snacks and rest stops), personal problems and global conflicts are resolved by superheros, super models and folks just like us. We are allowed to lower our guard, sip our beer and let the bright colors and car chases wash over us until it’s time for bed. That’s not “interactive,” that’s entertainment.

Declining, on the other hand, are the days of the communal, cultural, binding television experience. With the exception of the O.J. verdict, we now have so many choices that we are no longer tied together as a nation. We no longer share the jokes we all laughed at on Milton Berle, the jugglers we all saw on Ed Sullivan, or the wry smile at the ‘terlet’ we all heard on Archie Bunker. We can no longer turn to the person in line at the bank and say, “That teller looks like the guy on Johnny Carson last night. Wasn’t he hysterical?”

We are moving from shared knowledge and experience to infinite choices. Infinite choices divide us into smaller and smaller groups. The smaller the group, the more we want to participate. Only three people here? Then I’m willing to express my opinion. The Internet is showing us that people really like to have their say. They like to find affinity groups and socialize. They like to split up into 10,000 newsgroups where they can chat about minutely specific subjects and air their two cent’s worth. Being on hold on a radio talk show doesn’t cut it. They want their voices heard. They want to talk.

Today we have two appliances in our homes. One lets us sit back, relax and enjoy the entertainment with our loved ones by our side. The other lets us sit forward, participate and enjoy the conversation one-to-a-screen. Thinking that these two appliances can be merged is like thinking that the radio and the telephone should be a single unit. Both carry sound a great distance, but one is a one-way contrivance for listening and the other is a two-way device for communicating. They may sit right next to each other in our homes, but they are used for very, very different things.

So what does this mean to the cable industry?

Hopefully it acts like an alarm clock without a snooze alarm. The future is on the line and the wake-up call is for you. This new medium is in need of better content than can be had from ad agencies and better delivery than can be had from AT&T. The railroads could have owned the airline industry if they had realized they were in the transportation business instead of the train business. You have to decide if you are in the TV business or the communication industry. And decide soon.

It’s time to try a different “interactive TV” experiment. It’s time to bring people Internet access faster than they could ever have imagined. But don’t expect them to watch it like television. Expect them to participate in it, shape it and become the programming. Expect them to want to publish. They’ll want to send e-mail to Jerry Seinfeld. They’ll want to have their electronic resume available for any passing recruiter’s software agent. They’ll want to grab the camcorder and show grandma baby’s first steps.

The technical problem of one-way repeaters will bog the industry down for a while. But the pieces are already in place to wrestle some of the audience away from the Baby Bells. We already have coax and telephone lines to our homes. The phone lines are more than adequate to carry keystrokes back to the head end. That’ll keep interactive users happy for the moment. Long enough to figure out how to turn each home in America into its own narrowcast station.

Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message.” Less well known, however, is his farsighted, “The audience is the content.”

Little did he know…