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Cooperation Is Key to the Digital 'Wonderland'

By Eckhard Pfeiffer / August 2, 1996

Thirty-five years ago, Newton Minow, then-chairman of the Federal Communication Commission, delivered what came to be known as "television's first enduring sound bite." Before an eager group of executives at the annual convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, Minow dropped a bombshell - he told them that they had made television into a "vast wasteland."

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Whether or not television programming has improved since 1961 is a matter for critics and scholars to decide. What is certain, however, is that three-and-a-half decades later, television programming is being complemented by a cornucopia of rich, interactive digital information and entertainment - an emerging "vast wonderland."

TV itself is changing, too. The television environment of 1951 was like a sepia-tone photograph compared with today's prismatic home-entertainment landscape. Thirty-five years ago, ABC, CBS, and NBC commanded more than 90 percent of viewing time. Today, the three networks' combined share of audience hovers around 50 percent. When Minow delivered his speech, cable television served about 1 million homes. Today, there are more than 63 million cable households watching 137 national networks supported by advertising and viewer subscriptions.

However impressive this breadth of channels may be, even the most dedicated couch potatoes are starting to grow restless for a richer, more-customized experience.

A recent study by Inteco Corporation, a strategic consulting firm, reflects what many consumers are experiencing - namely, that the personal computer is beginning to challenge, and in some cases surpass, the television set as the home information appliance of choice. According to Inteco's findings, more than 18 million Americans are watching television less and spending that time using their personal computers.

Why? I suspect it's because today's digital-age consumers - especially the "wired" generation reared on e-mail, MTV, game machines, CD-ROMs, virtual reality, and, of course, the Internet - crave interaction and connection. They want to connect to one another, to the Net, to on-line services, to businesses, to government archives, to the ocean of information in cyberspace. And they've latched onto the connection machine par excellence - the PC - to travel electronically to whatever part of the world or whatever subject matter, person, or virtual community interests them.

PC ownership still trails TV-set ownership, but the gap is closing so rapidly that by the end of next year, the majority of American homes will have both products under one roof. And households with more than one computer are destined to become as common as households with more than one phone, TV, or VCR.

Why this rush to PCs? Because the PC's versatility is at an all-time high. The PC is a magnet for more and more functionality - fax, phone, modem, scanner, television, Net surfer, and more. It's become a teaching and personal- productivity tool, entertainment source, and communications device rolled into one. It is the one digital tool that can integrate and make sense of all the diverse information streams that consumers will be pulling into their intelligent, networked homes of the near future. In short, the era of personal computing is becoming an era of personal communications.

This should make it clear that delivering the vast wonderland will not be the province of any single industry acting alone. The coming era of digital personal communications is an era of converging industries. These industries must learn to compete in broad markets driven by consumer needs, rather than be protected from competition in their traditional market segments.