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New Media Age Needs Genius, Not Control

The future is always different from the present, but you’d never know it from the goings-on in “multimedia.” A Digital Hollywood conference has been running for three days in Beverly Hills, with participants discussing topics such as “Cable, Studios and Networks--Controlling the 500 Channel Environment.”

Meanwhile, investors across the nation ponder the sale of Paramount Communications for more than $10 billion--the winning suitor to be crowned Monday. Movie studios are hot. Ted Turner recently acquired two small ones and would like to make bigger deals.

Gigantic telephone companies join the bidding for Paramount, invest in studios or acquire cable television firms.

The aim is control. Buyers of studios want to control film libraries so they can supply movies on demand in the new age of expanded television. The cable and phone companies want control of the wires into your home, the highways on which information will travel.

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But, incredibly, all those efforts are misguided. The big money and bright people are chasing illusions if they think they’re truly buying a place in tomorrow’s media industry.

To begin with, control is the wrong word in the Information Age. There will be many highways, frustrating big investors who think they’re buying a monopoly line to homes. Personalized information will come to you through hand-held devices--or conventional telephones or personal computers or interactive television sets or public outlets similar to bank automated teller machines, says Marc Porat, president of General Magic, a Mountain View, Calif., firm that is developing wireless communications systems for Apple Computer, AT&T;, Matsushita, Motorola, Philips and Sony.

Control was the model of the telephone system’s early days, notes Porat, and that is one reason the telephone evolved slowly. “In contrast,” he says, “the personal computer tapped into the imagination of millions of people” and has developed rapidly.

Programming will be different, too. The idea that interactive media will simply show old movies is utterly lacking in imagination. “That’s the old passive technology,” says Stan Cornyn, executive vice president of Media Vision of Fremont, Calif. The firm adds sound and video qualities to personal computers and produces interactive videos--called titles, not programs.

The new medium will be a two-way one. “It will increase user involvement in stories or events,” says Cornyn, who is working on an interactive version of Dante’s “Inferno.”

Style will be different, just as television was different from radio. In the early days of television, radio comedians Jack Benny and Fred Allen and their verbal humor were brought into the new medium. And they were good, but ex-vaudevillian Milton Berle and Lucille Ball, with her sight gags, were better. They were attuned to the new medium.

New technologies make new winners. The movie studios must have seemed logical candidates to dominate television. But it was radio companies, CBS, RCA and ABC who developed the new medium. So far, electronics and computer companies, not movie makers, are dominating interactive media, although it’s likely that a growing need for story content will expand Hollywood’s role.

But it will remain a business of new technology, not old movies. Right now, greater computer processing power must be developed to realize interactive’s true possibilities; the titles that Media Vision and others make are technically crude.

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Still, there is a fledgling industry to look at. There are roughly 6 million CD-ROM drives, costing $200 and up apiece, attached to personal computers in the United States. And each owner might buy three CD-ROM titles a year, at about $30 each. That adds up to a $1.7-billion industry.

The most successful CD-ROM title so far is “The Seventh Guest,” a mystery story and video game from Trilobyte Productions, a small Medford, Ore., firm. The game, which can take 40 hours to play, has sold 450,000 copies at roughly $45 each. That makes it a product worth $20 million in total revenue, yet it was produced for less than $1 million.

And that’s the kind of margin that sets visions of sugar plums dancing in Hollywood--where an average film costs $30 million to make and only a “Jurassic Park” approaches the 20-1 return of “Seventh Guest.”

What’s the next attraction? Not movies but theme park rides, electronically simulated and presented in smaller neighborhood theaters, says Andrew Kessler, a managing director of Unterberg Harris, a San Francisco investment bank.

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Today, simulators of theme park attractions, such as Burbank’s Iwerks Entertainment, sell simulation theaters to Las Vegas hotels, Walt Disney Co. and Universal Studios. Soon, says Kessler, a downsized theme park will be in neighborhood storefronts.

The thrills will come from the interactive video’s ability to involve the user, to make your palms sweat as you steer the spaceship.

The more things change, as the saying goes. Talk of storefront attractions recalls New York’s 2nd Avenue at the beginning of this century, where immigrant entrepreneurs began today’s movie industry in nickelodeon theaters.

That industry hit it big with “Birth of a Nation” in 1915, an epic film that, as Stan Cornyn puts it, “made people look up and see that something new was happening.”

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Multimedia doesn’t have its “Birth of a Nation” yet, and the Information Age doesn’t have its highway, either.

But they’ll have breakthroughs. And when they do, it won’t be from following present models, but thanks to “geniuses who will intuitively employ the new technology on its own terms,” says Porat.

Meanwhile, buyers of studios and telecom-cable monopolies will find that it can be very expensive to invest in old technology.


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