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AOL's Parsons looks to digital future

The incoming CEO at AOL Time Warner chastises the cable and broadcast industries for ongoing friction and calls for a united effort to develop new digital products and stop piracy.

LAS VEGAS--Broadcasters must embrace new technologies and develop products for the next generation of digital entertainment, Richard Parsons, incoming CEO at AOL Time Warner, said Monday.

In an opening keynote speech to a crowd of media executives at the National Association of Broadcasters conference, Parsons emphasized a need for the industry to work together to address the opportunities and threats that technology brings to the marketplace.

He flagged interactive TV and video on demand as areas of development. He then quickly described enemies the industry "dare not ignore:" digital piracy and technologies that strip advertising out of content.

"Our challenge as an industry will be to anticipate, react to, and shape the way new methods of distributing and interacting with content affect our business," Parsons said.

Much of the NAB 2002 conference is designed to address broadcasters' shift from analog to digital formats--a transition mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. But the increasing confluence among broadcasters, cable operators and consumer-electronics manufacturers has reignited age-old friction among the various parties.

Parsons called the feuding among the cable and broadcast industries "outmoded and self-defeating." To deal with the complex issues brought on by emerging technology and convergence, he said the industry must have an increasingly singular view.

"We all have an interest in increasing the television revenue pie, avoiding unnecessary and counterproductive government interference, and dealing with opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies," he said.

Parsons also tipped his hat to the creative side of the business, noting that technology is just a means in the media business and not an end in itself.

"Going forward, people, not technology, will continue to be what counts most," he said. "The ability to imagine, create and report stories that entertain and inform will remain at the heart of what we do."

Apropos of the venue, Parsons made numerous references to gambling, including joking that his odds of winning in Vegas appeared better than his investment portfolio at the moment. As part of his regular compensation package, the AOL Time Warner executive recently was awarded 3.5 million stock options carrying exercise prices ranging from $48.96 to $73.44--well above the stock's price of $21.78 a share in late trading Monday.

Still, the steepest gamble the industry could lose is not meeting consumers' demands for digital entertainment, Parsons said. Consumers are choosing new forms of digital media to get their entertainment because they enjoy the control and convenience the technology affords; the industry has to answer this demand by working together to shape the media's evolution, Parsons said.

"The opportunities have never been more promising, the challenges never more daunting, the stakes never higher," he said. "But ladies and gentlemen, it's ours to lose."