Questioning Technology: Eyes on the Prize

Back in 1849, Henry David Thoreau astutely addressed the issue of content on information delivery systems. "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas," he wrote, "but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."Fast forward a century and a half to the year 2000. The shift from analog to digital communications technology is all but complete. The much anticipated new satellite, cable, broadcast, telco and wireless digital services are finally built and operating. What then? What will we have worth saying to each other over all these high speed digital communications networks.Some leading television programmers are worried about that very question. Some, in fact, are predicting a retreat from high technology at the turn of the century and a return to old fashioned, low tech storytelling. Frustrated by the current industry obsession with extravagant and expensive digital television technology, these programming executives confronted ThoreauÕs question in a spontaneous dialog about the state of electronic media recently at the annual Variety/Schroder Wertheim Big Picture Media Conference in New York City.Regardless of the "carrier pigeon," audiences are not going to turn on the new digital media devices unless there is something worth watching, said Marcy Carsey, a partner in the Carsey-Werner Company, producers of such network hits as Roseanne, Cybill, Grace Under Fire and The Cosby Show."Is all this stuff (technology) making for better shows, better movies, better music?" asked Carsey. "Not yet. Actually I think it might be worse for the time being. Lots of eyes have dropped lots of balls and those balls have to do with storytelling."Carsey got a nod of agreement from a man who began his career by editing short sports films for television syndication on his kitchen table at home. Charles Dolan now heads Cablevision Systems Corp., a leading programming and sports franchise company whose networks include American Movie Classics and Bravo. "We have been preoccupied as an industry in recent years with the ideas of facility and competition between facilities-based (information) providers. That's part of the move from analog to digital,"said Dolan, who also founded Home Box Office in the early 1970s.Currently, he added, the media industry is investing its money in digital delivery platforms that will offer more choices in programming and information services than most people will ever want."The fever is passing," he said. "By the end of the decade the platforms will be here and we'll be back to content. What we do about content -- each in his own area -- will be the way the winners are selected."Howard Stringer, the former CBS executive who's now chairman of TELE-TV, the programming effort by a consortium of telephone companies, said the reason for building a switched digital network is to enable niche programming for narrower audiences."The nightmare of programmers in America is you have to aim for a mass audience," said Stringer. "As long as you aim for a mass audience you create similar kinds of programming."Video-on-demand technology, said Stringer, would allow programming to be targeted to audiences as small as three million people and would open the industry to a new generation of television producers who can offer higher quality specialty programming."That's why I'm where I am," Stringer said. "It's a worthy goal even if we don't get there. Right now we are chasing our tails on the road to 18 to 49 year old idiots when 10,000 people are turning 50 every day."Michael Fuchs threw a bucket of cold water on Stringer's vision. Fuchs, the former HBO chief who recently left Time Warner in an executive bloodletting, said the huge investments in digital transmission facilities are not being made to allow narrowcasting of better quality programming."When we talk about full service networks or when (Telecommunications, Inc. CEO) John Malone talked of 500 channels, I never thought that would help (the quality of) programming," said Fuchs. Nor will video-on-demand systems that allow subscribers to watch big budget theatrical films help to create new programming, Fuchs argued. The "techno intoxication" going on in the industry, he said, could have a negative effect on program quality. "In fact, I think it buries the content under the volume that will be required," he said.When asked by the moderator if creativity can be maintained in the current trend of corporate mergers among media companies, Fuchs was equally blunt in his assessment."This issue is not about creativity. It's about profits," he said. "If it were about creativity we'd all have little bungalows by the beach and we'd be very creative."Globalization of the economy is what's driving media mergers, said Fuchs. "To travel the world you have to have resources. It's all about size...about profits. Size does not cultivate creativity."It becomes increasingly clear after reading ThoreauÕs words about the communications industry from the previous century that some things never change. They just wear new disguises.

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