The future is practically written

Special to The Times

"I never think of the future -- it comes soon enough."

-- Albert Einstein

How many times in your life have you had a truly brilliant idea? You know the kind of idea I'm talking about. You're a modest sort, so it's just another fairly good germ of a notion when it's knocking around in your brain caddy, but when somebody else gets the same idea and has either the guts or the connections or the cash to see it through -- and it turns into a great success -- well, then you're kicking yourself, aren't you?

I had one of those brilliant ideas about 25 years ago. I remember saying to friends, "All those great shows we watched when we were kids -- we should be able to watch that stuff now. There should be a channel that's just all great old shows."

So now you know the truth. I created Nick at Nite. OK, I didn't actually create it, but I sure thought of it. And now I get to sit by while some other gink takes the credit. Well, I'm not making the same mistake twice. Here's my next brilliant idea, and I'm putting it in print for everyone to see. Prepare, gentle reader, to be dazzled.

(Hum eerie, futuristic space music here and shift to lower register of internal reading voice.)

It's a night 10 years in the future. You've spent a long day working at Ozmonics Systems (the ozone layer recovery people), and you're in the mood to watch television. (Something entertaining. Not the ongoing Bush administration trials.) You take a seat in front of your information wall (one whole wall of every home is an interactive plasma screen) and speak to the voice-activated computer that runs your home, asking to access the entertainment database.

"Margaret?" (Yes, you'll be one of those people who give his or her computer a clunky, ironically funny human name. OK. You're a stitch.) "Tonight I think I'd like to watch the following: Any episode of "Bewitched" that features Uncle Arthur. The fifth inning of the 1987 World Series, Twins versus the Cardinals. The current episode of "The Simpsons." (Yes, it's still on -- only now it's a hologram and you get to be in it!) And maybe a couple of those Lays potato chips commercials that Bert Lahr did in the early '60s. Bring those up first, would you?"

There you have my brilliance. In the not-too-distant future, I predict you'll be able to watch anything that's ever been recorded whenever you want to watch it. Take a moment to catch your breath. I'll wait.

Before you start building a small shrine in your home to honor my superior smarts, let me point out two flies in my cranial ointment.

First, the template for this idea sort of already exists: It's called YouTube. If you've been living under a rock (which can still be pricey in L.A.) for the last few years and you don't know what I'm talking about, you're in for a treat. YouTube is my new addiction (right after licking children's toys made in China). If it exists and you want to watch it, you can find some form of it on YouTube. The site is not perfect. The clips are short, and the sound and video quality can be uneven. And YouTube is wonderfully democratic, which is its great blessing but an even greater curse. Anyone can post material to the site, so it's maybe 90% dreck. But the other 10%?

Glorious. My 15-year-old son showed me some David Blaine parody shorts the other night. A little rough around the edges, but I was too busy laughing to care.

The bigger fly involves content. All the stuff you asked Margaret to access for you 10 years from now? Every piece of it is owned by a different entity. What are the chances that the major entertainment companies will band together toward a common goal? (Unless it involves screwing the writers and the other professional people involved in creating content, I'd say the odds were slim to none.) Yes, there's a whole lot of working together involved in this brilliant idea of mine.

Oh, hell. Forget I mentioned it.

The point is, clearly, it doesn't take a genius to see where the entertainment business is headed in terms of delivery of product. All the writers are asking for is to be paid for the usage and paid a fair share. The guild was in disarray during the '88 strike. Weakened thanks to dissension and infighting, we ended up accepting a bad deal on DVD.

Well, we're not weak now. We won't be rolling over any time soon just because the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers thinks we should accept the same lousy deal. I mean, is that the American way? You take a rotten deal once, you're stuck with it forever? If the AMPTP truly believes that, I expect we'll see them at area Indian reservations soon, handing out smallpox-infected blankets. Hey -- they took them once, right?

Let's get back to the negotiating table, please. I'm really enjoying watching YouTube, and it's starting to scare me.

Peter Tolan writes, produces, directs and co-created (with Denis Leary) "Rescue Me." His television writing credits include "Murphy Brown" and "The Larry Sanders Show," and his feature film credits include "Analyze This," "Bedazzled," "Just Like Heaven" and "Finding Amanda," which he also directed.

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