Technology Could Soon Hand

TV Control to the Viewer

New York Times




HOLLYWOOD The year is 2025. You're watching the World Series on television. The son of Derek Jeter is at bat, and Darryl Strawberry's heir is in the on-deck circle. You're holding a remote-control device. Click. You call up Mr. Jeter's batting record. Click. You move the camera into the New York Yankee dugout. Click. You enter a chat room to talk about the game. Click. You move the camera behind the pitcher's mound to get her perspective. (Remember, it's 2025). Click. You want to buy a Yankee hat or order a set of tickets for a future game or make a bet on the current game.

Click. Click. Click.

"Twenty-five years from now it's hard to think that any of these things will not be available," said David Neuman, president of the Digital Entertainment Network, which creates programming on the World Wide Web for 12- to 24-year-olds.

Better yet, you want to watch the Academy Awards. Julia Roberts and Leonardo Di Caprio have just won Oscars for roles as grandparents retiring to Arizona. Tuning in will be, as Jeff Berg, chairman of International Creative Management, said, a multidimensional experience. Viewers will be able to call up scenes from the Oscar winning film, decide whether they want to look at the glittering audience or visit backstage, engage in an online discussion of the awards show itself and even ask the Oscar winners a question or two over the Internet.

"Television is going through a transformation," Mr. Berg said, in an obvious understatement.

Robert A. Iger, chairman of the ABC group and president of Walt Disney International put it more bluntly. "The world in which the television business exists today won't resemble anything like that world in 15 or 20 years," he said. "People will want entertainment and information customized to their own needs, their own personal tastes. Right now you have a computer on a desktop and a television set against a wall. In the future, people will use them interchangeably; it will be the same piece of equipment. It's a combination that's extremely powerful."

Although Mr. Iger and other executives in the worlds of television and entertainment are not entirely certain about the details of the convergence of television, computers and broadband cable systems, all agree that

the experience of watching television will prove extraordinarily different in 25 years from today's viewing.

"When you look ahead, what people are considering to be television will not be today's television anymore," said Jim Molo- president of Warner Brothers On-Line, the company's Web site. "Television will be a funnel to the outside world by the consumer, and the consumer will be using it for multiple uses. And broadcasting will be only one use."

Looking toward the next millennium, Mr. Moloshok mused: "I'll have a unit in my family room where I'll be able to watch a show or go to the Web or download a movie from Blockbuster. I'll be able to watch a television and see a commercial and relate directly to it by making a purchase online. I'll be able to watch a football game and maybe pay a little extra to get extra angles on the players or deeper access to the content. If I missed an episode of a television show, I may have to pay 15 cents or a dollar and get the episode I missed.

"The bottom line is television in the future will survive by giving consumers more control," he added.

On one level, there will be even more choices than there are today. As a result of the explosion of cable, networks like NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox will probably create offshoots aimed at specific audiences - the sports crowd, soap opera buffs, teenagers, people focused on Wall Street or women's issues.

"Fifteen years ago people came home and said, 'What's on television? " said Don Ohlmeyer, former president of NBC, West Coast. "Today they come home and say, 'What do I want to watch on television?' And in the future it'll be like going to a computer. The choices will be almost inexhaustible. Essentially, the job of the programmer is being taken over by the individual."

At another level, though, technological breakthroughs are accelerating changes in television so quickly that network executives are left almost breathless -or in denial - about the medium as they face the millennium. Certainly there is concern among television executives that the major networks that pioneered the growth of television will splinter along with

Perhaps the most innovative digital breakthrough is the personal video recorder, or P.V.R., as it is often known, an electronic device that looks similar to a videocassette recorder but can give viewers extraordinary power over their entertainment choices. To its acolytes, the P.V.R., which now sells for about $500 and up, spells nothing short of the end of television as it is known today.

The system offers a viewer essentially almost total control over when he or she watches a favorite show. A click of the controller allows viewers to select what they want to watch now, or later. Live TV is almost like watching a tape. If a viewer is watching "E.R.," and the phone rings, one can pause to answer it and then return to pick up the show where it stopped. The machines enable viewers to skip commercials, allowing them potentially to catch up with the interrupted broadcast.

Moreover, viewers can easily use the machine, with a flick of a button, to select specific programs or themes to be recorded - football games, Tom Cruise films, the latest episode of "Law and Order," the entire syndicated "I Love Lucy" series. These are offered on the schedule that the viewer wants.

"In this context, as a viewer, I will no longer care that I'm not home on Thursday night to watch 'Friends,' " said Ken Ziffren, a top entertainment lawyer dealing with the Internet. "I can watch it when I choose - say on Sunday night. The fact is, you're creating your own schedule, at your own time. And you don't care whether it's' NBC or CBS or ABC."

The systems, made by rivals TiVo Inc. and Replay Networks - two California companies that both started in August 1997 and began shipping in April this year - blend a personal computer and a video recorder. Using a computer's hard disk, the machines can store 14 to 30 hours of television programs and record a live show while a recorded show is being watched, which is basically what they are doing when a show is paused and picked up a few minutes later.

Echoing the views of other network executives, Sandy Grushow, chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, said: "There's little question that the broadcast business will be challenged more dramatically in the next 10 years than in the last 50. The economic models upon which the networks were built in the 1940's are being challenged like never before, most profoundly by digital technology. It's all moving inexorably," he said, "toward greater viewer control."

Proliferation of channels, diminishing numbers of viewers on network television and, of course, new technologies have led to audience fragmentation. Mr. Grushow said that companies like TiVo and Replay had the potential of "wreaking havoc" on the traditional relationship between television networks and sponsors. Inevitably, Mr. Grushow said, advertisers and networks will be almost compelled to develop a new and different set of relationships to survive.

Whatever the technological changes, though, dominant entertainment industry figures warned that gadgetry could go only so far. In the end, they said, creativity would outweigh technology.

"There's no question that there will be an infinite set of choices for what you want to see," said Michael D. Eisner, chairman of the Wait Disney Company. "There will be some kind of confluence between the computer and the television set," Mr. Eisner said. "But television is only as good as what the programs are. Good programs will drive the technology. You're only as good as your writers, directors, actors and producers. Good storytelling hasn't changed in a thousand years. The advance in technology will not advance a bad story."