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The "Teleputer"
Mar 24, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

Over the past few weeks, the long-awaited release of a new storage media for digital information was all over the press. DVD, or digital versatile disk, will soon be hitting consumer electronics stores near you, promising a near nirvana of convergence -- the long-promised merger of the television and the computer.

Meanwhile the Internet is becoming more like a broadcast medium, with open (yet competing) standards for push media, and streaming video technology from Progressive Networks.

I think there's some sort of convergence trend here, but I'm not quite sure where it's headed. Several million people pushing content to the Microsoft desktop of a merged television and computer? (Or, as David Foster Wallace has coined in "Infinite Jest," the teleputer?)

Before everyone and their mother gets all bent out of shape re. the rosy future of broadcast media, I think it's time we take stock of how the convergence is pressing on in the real world. And the obvious place to start is with all the URLs being plastered over prime time.

The advertisers are one thing; I expect Microsoft and IBM and MCI to hawk their wares on television -- even though they're hawking products that only a very small portion of us actually use, much less administer or make purchase decisions for. Not that a 30-second spot with comedian Denis Leary ranting in an IBM Thinkpad-equipped cybercafe is going to explain to us what Domino is really all about.

But forget the ads for a minue. The television shows are another thing altogether. If you've spent anytime channel surfing during the non-prime time hours not consumed by college basketball, you've probably discovered the strange TV/Internet hybrids. There are shows with sites, there are sites with shows, and there are things that are somewhere in between...

*** Group one: Is it a web site or a television show?

C|Net was the first to blur the line between online and teleivision production with C|Net central, and as of late they've gone one step further with In an act that gives new meaning to the phrase "lowest common denominator," the television show (and the website) features dumbed down C|Net content, which I didn't think was possible. Two rent-an-anchors and Ron Reagan (yes, that Ron Reagan) dishing out useless little tidbits on websites and consumer electronics, while hawking the only decent thing about the entire endeavor: their domain name, Hmmm, but on the other hand, how do they think they can build any brand equity around something as generic as the letters "TV?"

Also in this group is Travel Update, a show I happened to catch one Sunday morning while waiting for Cokie and Sam and George to skewer Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Like, the show features a couple of bland anchors, who give us the latest in "travel news," all the while flashing URL after URL of sites that have more information about selected destinations. Maybe most of America has moved their computer into the living room, and I'm just behind the curve, but who watches TV and surfs the web at the same time?

*** Group two: Why bother with a web site?

On Siskel and Ebert, besides giving two thumbs up to the re-release of The Godfather, Gene and Robert were plugging an upcoming live event on I thought these guys were supposed to disagree with each other, and now they're sharing a domain name? Sure, they may offer nice, encapsulated movie reviews, but so do most local papers. Their names have great brand equity, but I'd much rather watch these guys make fools out of themselves on television, where I can see the clips in a reclining position, in full stereo surround sound.

*** Group three: Let the website kill the show.

If there's any channel that's perfectly ready for the teleputer, it's QVC. Interactive shopping will someday be the killer app, especially for the junk they hawk on shows like QVC. As long as they can sell their diehards enough Packard Bell machines to get them hooked on, they'll be well poised to take advantage of the'net. They already have a searchable database and secure sessions. If they could just add some streaming RealVideo for the "TV" effect, and a PointCast channel for the latest specials, they'd be set.

Lately it seems that the only way to get your URL in the public consciousness is through advertising "out of band," on a medium other than the Internet. In the San Francisco Bay Area, local television stations push their URL down our throats 24 hours a day. "Traffic and weather updated every ten minutes on our website," But when it comes to true content, I've yet to see anyone do something interesting in both mediums simultaneously. The technology convergence will happen, but the content conversion is lagging behind.



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