Bring Bill Gates and Microsoft Back From the Future

The Microsoft publicity machine is generating a new rhapsody of futuristic deception - that the company's founder, Bill Gates, will sweep away television, newspapers, magazines, and the shopping mall and replace them with personal computers and set-top boxes online - using Microsoft-ware, of course.

The problem with this self-serving vision is twofold: The safety nets put in place by the federal government to protect the old media estates are fully operative. And there are critical human factors that the "Lords of Silicon" are overlooking.

First, the safety net. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the federal government's gift of eternal life to the American broadcasting and cable industries. Only five senators and 16 representatives voted against it. President Clinton signed it, saying it would protect consumers against monopoly and would guarantee "the diversity of voices this democracy depends on." Actually, it was designed to protect broadcasters against Gates.

The Faustian deal the feds and broadcasters struck at the dawn of commercial radio in the late 1920s is alive and operative, assuring no change in the status quo for the foreseeable future. In exchange for campaign largess and access to the airwaves, politicians will do essentially whatever the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the National Cable TV Association wish.

The NAB has won multiple digital channels for its members without charge - and without payback to the public interest. Advertisers, guaranteed against having to pay taxes on their huge ad expenditures, will pump billions into the coffers of commercial TV. Despite erosion of viewership, commercial television remains the cheapest way to deliver audiences in the multiple millions to corporate sales pitches.

And what about the human factors working against Gates's vision? Sixty percent of homes don't have personal computers, and 80 percent don't have modems. PCs are too costly and complicated for most Americans to serve as a replacement appliance for the TV. The cost of high-speed access to the Internet also is prohibitive for many, assuming they live in an area where phone companies offer a gateway to it.

And anyhow, who wants to relax and watch television at a computer workstation? Who wants to interact with anybody when the long day is done? Current television technology requires only that weary viewers master the on-off switch, the channel selector, the mute button on the remote control, and continue to put up with the rubbish they are fed.

Bill Gates, the one aspiring mass-communication tycoon who has invested deeply enough in multimedia to deliver it in the near future to home computers, also has succeeded in accumulating a coalition of potent enemies. Government anti-trusters have fined him for forcing his Web-browsing paraphernalia on the industry. Gates has stirred industry competitors, newspaper publishers, and broadcasters into action. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader is staging a conference of would-be Gates-tamers - government officials, corporate executives, and citizen activists - this week in Washington.

The question Gates must ponder as he meditates on all this is whether it might be good business to place the word "enough" back in his business plan - and whether it's possible for enormous wealth to buy even a small portion of humility.

* Jerry M. Landay is professor emeritus in journalism and communications at the University of Illinois. He is a former correspondent for the ABC and CBS networks.

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