QUESTIONING TECHNOLOGY: Now, Exactly What Business are We In?

A lot of people in the media business are running scared these days. Caught up in a swirl of continuing technological change, they feel threatened and wonder if they will survive the turbulent roller coaster ride that's now begun.A good survival technique in a time of chaos and confusion is to cut through all the clutter and define the basics of what you are really doing. As far as John Hendricks is concerned, this is fundamental stuff that will make or break you in today's media world.In the early 1980s, Hendricks recognized what others didn't. Documentary films -- thought at the time to be highbrow and unprofitable -- could draw a substantial audience and make a lucrative business, the young Hendricks surmised. When everyone else in American television wrote off documentaries, Hendricks took the risk and started what became the Discovery Channel.As a student at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Hendricks had learned to love the documentary form. What this young media entrepreneur instinctively knew is that human beings have an insatiable curiosity about life and are drawn to stories that help explain their world. That simple and fundamental knowledge is the basis for today's Discovery Communications media empire."Discovery is in the business of helping people explore their world and satisfy their curiosity," says the company's mission statement. However, as important as that statement is for defining Discovery's core business, it's equally important to note what is NOT mentioned. That is technology. The mission statement, notes Hendricks, "describes what we do but doesn't put limits on how we do it."Too many media enterprises define themselves through technology and not by their actual business. "One of the most fundamental traits for survival in the communications world is almost laughably obvious yet frequently overlooked and underestimated," Hendricks said.As an example, he points to the big three commercial television networks. "In 1975 -- at the dawn of satellite-delivered television -- it was astonishing to discover that the American broadcasting networks fundamentally did not know what business they were in. Their self perception was defined by a particular delivery technology: broadcasting."As opportunity stared them in the face, ABC, NBC and CBS basically shrugged their shoulders and declared, 'we are in the broadcasting business, not cable,'" Hendricks continued. "What would have happened if the network executives at the time had started formatting their major content categories -- news, sports, documentaries, movies, sitcoms -- into satellite-delivered channels? If they had, quite possibility Discovery, CNN, ESPN and the other major cable networks wouldn't exist today."What the networks missed in the mid-70s, said Hendricks, was understanding that their REAL business is telling stories, not broadcasting video signals over transmitters."Behavioral scientists tell us that humans are genetically predisposed to the simple concept of the story," Hendricks said. "We love telling stories and hearing stories. It is the way our species imparts valuable survival information from one generation to the next. There is something about the linear structure of a story -- a beginning, middle and end -- that has the most appeal to the human mind. A linear build-up of suspense captivated our ancestors as they huddled around the campfire."Today, said Hendricks, that linear structure keeps audiences clustered around television sets. "The most successful of today's media products is driven by well-crafted, linear stories," Hendricks said. "Storytelling by the media -- newspapers, books, magazines, movies, television, radio, the Internet and future delivery systems -- is here to stay."Another fundamental is that people are predisposed to receive their stories in certain ways, Hendricks said. Just because technology allows us to deliver simultaneous streams of video, audio, text and graphics does not mean that human beings always want their stories in an interactive, multimedia form. Discovery Communications made its own discovery about this when it tested the delivery of randomly accessible information along with its documentary programs."Viewers in test markets and focus groups could watch a Discovery documentary about lions in Africa while at the same time they could use their remote control to access a rich selection of supporting material -- maps, text and photos of detailed information about lion behavior, African geology, geography and history," said Hendricks."Well," he said, "consumer response was not positive." The television audience locked onto the storyline of the documentary and didn't want to deal with the supplemental information while the program progressed.The opposite effect, however, occurred in the case of Discovery's interactive CD-ROMs. Here, computer users who were engaged in the random access of text and graphics complained if they encountered a video clip that ran longer than 45 seconds.From these tests Hendricks and company learned a valuable lesson about how and when people like to absorb stories and information. While watching a television program, most passive viewers wanted to stay with the linear story and not break away to supplemental content. However, when actively pursuing information -- such as interacting with a CD-ROM or surfing the Internet -- users didn't want to be slowed down with a linear story."I think those tests showed the extreme reluctance and incapacity of the human mind to alternatively engage and disengage from the linear storytelling structure," Hendricks said.With a keen understanding that a good story is both the past and future of all media, where does Hendricks see the future of communications technology? Possibly the Internet, which he sees as "a great tool for satisfying both our personal curiosity and our desire to connect with fellow humans who share our particular needs." However, he's quick to say, the Internet is not yet ready for prime time."Someday, when the Internet allows the seamless transmission of images at 24 or 30 frames a second, it may become the dominate storytelling medium on our planet," said Hendricks. "But today, television and film still hold a tremendous storytelling advantage."

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