A deal that will indelibly alter our media landscape, throw the future of broadcast into question, promise new distribution models, expand interactive and “addressable” advertising… a deal that will fundamentally redefine television. No, I’m not talking about the Comcast-NBC Universal announcement that made waves last week. This was the hype surrounding the “information superhighway” of 1993.
I admit, as someone writing a dissertation on web practices in the dot-com bubble, I probably spend way too much time with my head stuck in the 90’s. But noting all of the mentions of the AOL-Time Warner merger as a deathly omen hanging over the Comcast/NBCU agreement—heightened by this week’s official divorce—I couldn’t help but think that a more apt comparison might be the cable-phone mania that swept the country in 1993 in a clamor for interactive television. Or at the very least, it provides a good back-story for today’s media maneuverings.
Back then, telecommunication providers were lining up to build the infrastructure that would bring glorious things into our living rooms and onto our television screens: 500 channels! Videogames! Video-on-demand! Home shopping! 24 hr access to a Cover Girl cosmetics center where consumers can learn—on the spot!—which Cover Girl nail polish matches the lipstick she saw in a commercial! (OK, that last one perhaps less glorious, but promised nonetheless). True, there would be high hurdles ahead. “Just wait until John Q. Public tries to click his remote control to ‘launch’ ‘Laverne and Shirley’ and he gets an error message saying, ‘insufficient memory,’ one commentator speculated. But these potential snafus hardly dampened the ambitious plans and alliances being forged.
The Information Superhighway, a nationwide high capacity fiber optic network of phone, cable and computer networks, was being pitched as super-interactive television, and it would reinvent home entertainment, changing the way we accessed and thought about media. But neither cable companies nor phone companies alone were equipped to bring these services into the home. Cable companies could pump in the content, but couldn’t help viewers interact with it. Phone companies didn’t have high capacity lines, but they were masters of switching information in all directions over a network. Hence, “cable-phone mania”: USWest teamed up with Time Warner, Southwestern Bell united with Cox cable, and most spectacularly, regional phone company Bell Atlantic and cable giant TCI announced a $33 billion merger that would lay the lines that would make the information superhighway a reality. It failed four months later.
The aborted merger, the technological difficulties in actually getting this stuff to work, and the overwhelming response of consumers to interactive tv and on-demand viewing (”who has time for all the interactive mumbo jumbo”?) all worked to shelve the pipe dreams of the information superhighway as interactive TV. And anyway, by this time everyone was waking up to the idea that the information superhighway was already here, accessible via computer screen and modem. When TCI was purchased by AT&T five years later, the driving logic didn’t have anything to do with interactive TV. Nobody wanted 500 channels; they wanted internet access.
Fast-forward sixteen years: the high tech future is here! Video on demand (check), home shopping (check), networked gaming (check), 24 hour Cover Girl access (check!) So what to make of the long journey to get here? Today “redefining television” isn’t about bringing the media universe to our home set; it’s about setting television loose into cyberspace—accessible “anytime, anywhere”—and watching media industries scramble to bottle up some revenue.
Now, like then, distribution is key… just not the only key. Guarding against a future where cable is a bunch of “dumb pipes,” Comcast wants in on the content game. But despite technological breakthroughs and changing attitudes about media use, some of those very early questions are still unresolved plot points in an ongoing storyline about the post-TV era. Is broadcast really over? Can new technologies like authentication systems successfully herd viewers into gated revenue-friendly media zones? Will viewers go down without a fight? Will the technology actually work? Will marketers freak out about the future of ad-supported television? How will audiences be measured? Can a merger of media giants harness the competing logics of cable and the internet? Will there ever really be a post-TV era? Or will Comcast-NBCU turn up as roadkill on the TV Everywhere Infobahn?
ABC News, Sep. 30 1993