Channel turfing

Everyone from MSN to AOL to Pointcast wants to cut the Web up into advertiser-friendly "channels." But the more the Web is like TV, the less good it is -- and the less business it will do.

Published April 27, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

log on to the Microsoft Network. Don't touch your mouse. Zap! Muzak plays. Keywords flash. You're watching the MSN Preview Channel, a collage of teasers for MSN programs: Cinemania. V Style. Underwire. Click here. Click here. CLICK HERE!

Sign on to America Online and the first screen you see -- once you click past a barrage of merchandise offerings -- is now called "Channels."

Install Pointcast and you've got yet another ready-made array of "channels" on your desktop. Popular Web directories like Yahoo and Excite have announced that they, too, will introduce new channel formats.

"Site" is a perfectly good word to describe the places we go on the Web. That hasn't prevented online companies from jumping all over each other to relabel their sites according to the terminology of television.

Much of the motivation is plain wishful thinking -- the vague hope that TV-scale audiences and ad revenues may follow from the choice of interface metaphor. But the rush to "channel" the Web also reveals some of the deep confusion of the online industry as it thrashes around for models and ideas.

What's a channel on the Web? On old-fashioned TV, channels are frequencies assigned to local stations affiliated with national networks that are competing for your eyeballs; they're organized by ownership, not type of content. Cable TV channels offer you more specific subjects, but mostly they're still competing with each other.


MSN's six channels aren't real channels at all. You could just as easily call them menus or bookmark lists. Whatever you call them, they will only lead you to MSN's own Web sites (or "shows," as Microsoft likes to call them, as it launches and cancels them in TV-style 13-week seasons). They're not organized terribly well: If you try to find Slate, Microsoft's highbrow politics and culture magazine, you might look first on Channel 1, "News Weather Sports," then on Channel 5, "Media Zines Attitude," before actually locating the journal on Channel 3, "Arts Nature History."

MSN's channels, far from offering useful choices or a more personalized experience, turn out to be an attempt to narrow and control users' experience of the Web. It is possible to use MSN to venture beyond Microsoft's own offerings to any Web site in existence -- but only if you know to click on the tiny "Internet toolbar" icon that brings up a space to type a Web address. On one hand, a tiny icon; on the other, the full-screen assault of the Preview Channel. Where do you think Microsoft wants you to go today?

Similarly, Pointcast -- the early leader in the field of "push" technology -- offers a TV-set-like interface with channels organized around topics like news, technology and sports, feeding content offered only by its partners. Over on America Online, the "channel" vision turns out to be even paltrier: It's just a new label slapped on the service's familiar organization chart.

In truth, if the Web were anything like TV, then MSN and AOL would themselves be separate, competing channels -- with the Internet itself as the airwaves. But despite all the borrowed nomenclature, the Web isn't much like TV at all. And as Web businesses struggle to build a mass audience, their relentless TV-wannabe act can only invite derision and disaster.


It's almost too obvious a point, but apparently it bears repeating: The more the Web is like TV, the less we need it. TV already does a pretty effective job of delivering what Net content people call "broadband multimedia information and entertainment" to the home, and most consumers already own the hardware. What sells the Internet to newbies is its promise of things TV can't deliver: "many-to-many" communication via bulletin boards and e-mail; interactive services that go beyond catalog shopping; quirky content unavailable on TV's limited number of channels; specific, accurate information that's there when you need it, whether it's sports stats, stock quotes or plane-ticket availability.

With its 8 million-member reach, AOL is the closest the online world gets to TV-network scale. Yet by far its most heavily used services are e-mail and chat. The most seductive forms of interactivity remain those that connect people with other people.

Both AOL and MSN are banking heavily on new forms of entertainment that draw in users/viewers/visitors with interactive devices -- live chats with the characters in online soaps, musical jams in which users can play along with celebrity performers, competitive gaming and more. But the prospects in this area remain cloudy. The one popular success among Web soap operas, "The Spot," never made money, and the company that produced it is now in bankruptcy.

Still, veterans of Hollywood and TV are flocking to the online world with promises of professionalism and innovation. AOL has hired TV programming legend Brandon Tartikoff to head its entertainment studio; his first announced project is an online soap set -- where else? -- at a struggling TV network. (At least it beats the naked greed of a current MSN soap, "475 Madison Avenue," which is set in a struggling ad agency.) MSN's chief programmer, Bob Bejan, is a former "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" promoter who has a lot of experience with interactivity from a previous job as head of Interfilm. Interfilm's interactive movies -- which gave theatergoers pistol-grip controls and had them vote on which path stories should take -- still serve as benchmarks of awfulness.

Whoever is in charge, it's healthy for Microsoft and AOL to fund interactive-entertainment experiments -- but the more these trials are built on the TV model, the more likely they are to fail. TV is the short-attention-span medium par excellence, in which every second counts and must be accounted for; the typical TV commercial is half over in the time it takes a typical Web page to load at modem speed. Each time Web developers invoke TV imagery by calling their sites "shows" or adding theme songs and splash-screen commercial spots, they remind people of the Web's technical inferiority -- in speed, sound and image quality, ease of use and reliability.

Even in the tightly controlled quarters of MSN, a proprietary network that only runs on Windows 95 computers, you can't venture too far without running into an error message or a freeze. The house-ad animations that Microsoft wants to "push" at you tend to work swiftly, but try to go where you want to go and you're back to the World Wide Wait.

It's no coincidence that MSN serves up its ads so snappily -- or that, when you install the Pointcast software, you receive an ad for Levi's or Pointcast itself long before the service has downloaded any actual news or information. Everyone online wants to boost ad revenue, but the Web "channels" approach is very specifically designed to serve advertisers first and users second: It involves a direct trade-off of user freedom for advertiser convenience. That might prove good business -- if it doesn't annoy too much of the audience too quickly -- but promoting it as a cool new benefit takes a lot of chutzpah.


Channels and other TV concepts, we're told, tame the scary Net for new users. Familiar language takes the edge off the technology's daunting geekiness. But this labeling sleight-of-hand doesn't actually help users to master the Net's complexities; it simply pats them on the head and says, "We know what's best for you."

Remember that distinction as the casualties start to mount in the war among the "push" technology pioneers -- with Pointcast, Marimba's Castanet and their many competitors all vying to take over your desktop with "channels" of automatically delivered information. The closer these companies stick to the TV model, the harder they will crash. The survivors will figure out how to offer something a user can't already get for free in the living room; they will give us working tools we can use to build truly personal filters for information and entertainment, rather than forcing us to pick from a few pre-set, broadcast-style channels conveniently aggregated for marketing purposes. The subscription metaphor of print publishing is actually a lot closer to what "push" might productively become than the channel metaphor of TV. But I guess "channel" sounds sexier.

Recent (and disputed) Nielsen numbers suggest that network TV viewership is declining while Internet use is growing. Just as Net veterans looked down their noses at AOL arrivistes when that network first plugged into the Internet a few years ago, today's Web devotees sometimes sound fearful of any influx of "the masses." But the Web has nothing to lose and everything to gain from the advent of consumer devices like WebTV, which take the Web as it already exists and simply pumps it right onto people's TV sets. This may not be the ideal way to get access to what's online, but it's cheap and easy to use -- and if anything it represents the triumph of the Net over television, not the reverse.

The more people on the Web, the better for everyone (as long as the Internet is able to keep adding capacity). But even when the Web achieves mass-market numbers that rival TV, it won't be the same kind of mass market as TV. A "mass interactive medium" is a contradiction in terms; what we're really imagining is a market that's mass-sized but also interactive on a manageable human scale. TV's one-size-fits-all (or one-size-fits-oodles) thinking will never get us there.


Before the profusion of useless "channels" on the Web gets too depressing, it's worth drawing a little perspective from the early days of television itself. Michael Ritchie's entertaining "Please Stand By: A Prehistory of Television" (Overlook Press, 1994, 247 pages) -- a must read for today's Web builders -- records a full two decades of false starts and shaky near-misses in TV technologies and programming before TV's emergence as a popular commercial medium in the late '40s.

Anyone creating for or trying to use today's Web can only be heartened to read this record of astonishing mishaps and bloopers, as TV's pioneers tried to move the new technology out of the shadow of its imposing big brothers, radio and movies. Lengthy film clips covered slow set changes. When NBC made its first attempt to broadcast a movie in 1938 -- Leslie Howard in "The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel" -- the projectionist played the reels out of order.

Sponsors' live spots would regularly go awry, like the demo of an automatic can-opener that not only failed to open the can but actually pulled a chunk of the set off the wall. Lights on the sets were so appallingly hot that they curdled the mayonnaise on sandwiches a talk-show host had to hawk for a sponsor -- so he kept a vomit bucket under the table.

With all of this, shows played only to numbers in the tens or hundreds, leaving advertisers and executives underwhelmed. CBS's William Paley doubted that people would ever want to be entertained by TV at home: "Man is a social creature; he likes to rub shoulders with his fellows." After a 1934 TV demo, radio pundit H.V. Kaltenborn opined, "There is nothing you have shown me which could not be more definitely shown by lantern slides, or moving pictures." TV seemed just as goofy a long shot to radio's barons as the Web appears to today's TV moguls.

It's never easy to make out the shape of things to come through the keyhole of what we already know. But there's no law that says we have to talk about what's new using familiar words that don't actually fit. For the Web's sake, the sooner "channels" wind up on the dead-buzzword heap, the better.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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