21st: Let's Get This Straight

Let's Get This Straight: By Scott Rosenberg. Once more, into the interactive TV breach.


Scott Rosenberg
February 19, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Remember "enhanced CDs"? For years the music companies tried to package and sell these multimedia hybrids in an attempt to jazz up your run-of-the-mill music CD with a few dozen megabytes of CD-ROM-style photos, video clips, lyrics and liner notes. Somebody somewhere thought we all wanted to pop our CDs into our computers so we could transform the simple pleasure of listening to music we love into a razzle-dazzle multimedia experience.

Unfortunately, one usually wants to read lyrics and liner notes while listening to the music itself -- a simple bit of multi-tasking that the clumsy enhanced-CD format does not allow. Today, the enhanced CD has mostly disappeared from the music store racks; it's just one more stiff in the dead-technology graveyard.

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Enhanced CDs didn't develop to meet some public hunger. They were a gimmick conceived by a marketing alliance -- between technologists in search of new uses for their frequently purposeless devices and entertainment companies seeking ways to repackage and resell their "intellectual property."

Like enhanced CDs, most of the ungainly offspring of this prolific alliance usually flop in the market. But hope springs eternal. Technology companies and Hollywood are teaming up once more to hunt down the elusive chimera known as "interactive television." Bruised four years ago by the previous round of this struggle -- in which overblown predictions of a 500-channel utopia and video-on-demand heaven sank in an ocean of red ink -- the partners are hedging their bets this time around.

Where once we were promised all manner of futuristic innovations and life-transforming services, the versions of interactive TV now being prototyped are downsized and humble. They often involve marginal annotations to existing TV programming -- buttons you can click on that provide additional information about a show, like sports statistics or financial info. It all sounds familiar; these projects might as well be called "enhanced TV."

Attendees at Networked Entertainment World, a conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., last week, got a brief look at one new enhanced TV product dubbed Intertainer -- which had been unveiled in a New York Times piece a couple days before. Founded by Jonathan Taplin and Richard Baskin, a couple of Hollywood veterans, and backed by Intel and cable giant Comcast, the Intertainer company plans to use "broadband"-style networks -- based on either cable modems or forthcoming DSL telephone service -- to pump movies, TV and music programming, along with commercials, into the American home.

What makes Intertainer any different from the existing media? What's "interactive" here? Well, you get to watch and listen to stuff when you want it, rather than when it's scheduled. Electronic commerce is built in, along with "collaborative filtering" technology from Firefly that provides recommendations for your entertainment consumption if you don't know what you want already.

That's all fine. But what's missing are the very interactive features that have attracted some 40 million Americans onto the Internet over the past half-decade: e-mail and chat.

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Enhanced TV products like Intertainer take the genie of digital technology and try to stuff it back into the living-room box. Entertainment execs kept trying to stir things up at Networked Entertainment World by suggesting that, if we don't find ways to use the Internet for mass entertainment, the new medium might prove to be "just a big telephone" -- as if the telephone were some kind of minor footnote in technological history.

The real problem Hollywood has with the telephone analogy is that telephone calls are not an advertising medium. The closer the prototypes for new media ventures stick to the old broadcast models, the more easily they can fall back on the old revenue models. Products like Intertainer, with their ability to target individual consumers, are a marketer's wet dream: The TV/computer knows all about how to sell to you, and you can't talk back (except to say "buy").

But for Intertainer or any other enhanced TV service to succeed, it will have to assemble a mass audience of users, and that's where it may falter. "Consumers are clamoring for a visually rich digital multimedia experience," Compaq VP Robert Stearns told conference attendees -- but that clamor hasn't exactly been deafening. For large numbers of people to adopt a new home-entertainment technology, the product of course needs to be cheap, easy to use and reliable; but it also must offer a payoff for the extra time you'll spend setting it up, making it work and learning to use it. Intertainer is now running pilot tests in Palo Alto and Buena Park, Calif. If it can get the technology to work, then the real test will begin -- the battle for people's time.

Science fiction author Neal Stephenson ("Snow Crash," "The Diamond Age") kicked off the conference -- on a surprisingly pessimistic panel that also featured futurist-pundit Paul Saffo, author-trendmeister Doug Rushkoff and computer-interface pioneer Alan Kay -- with a crash course in the nature of the "attention economy": "There are only a few subgroups in society that have time on their hands: students, prisoners, retirees and Kenneth Starr." Interactive media, Stephenson said, are coming into "a brutally competitive time marketplace."

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The theory of the "attention economy" holds that there's an infinite amount of information but only 24 hours in the day, so our time will increasingly be our most valuable, and scarcest, commodity. If that's true, then mass-market entertainers may be in for trouble. Of course, they aren't the only ones. The Web, too, functions according to its own attention-economy dynamic, punishing those whose sites download too slowly and rewarding those who are able to get their URLs widely distributed.

This very process could be observed in full swing only a hundred yards outside the conference's hotel, the Beverly Hills Hilton, at the busy intersection of Wilshire and Santa Monica boulevards -- where a duo of women dressed in pink hot pants and tall black boots smiled, blew whistles, waved at the traffic and held up a six-foot banner. Their Valentine's Day message? "WWW.AMORE.COM."

That Web address turns out to have nothing to do with suave Italian romance; it's an alias for a site called Sexual Advantage, purveyors of sex-tips videos. Cheesy and crass as the come-on was, its instigators understood something about the attention economy that the Hollywood-Silicon Valley entente has yet to learn: Before you can sell a product, you have to assemble an audience.

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Scott Rosenberg

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

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