ANAHIEM, CA--Fresh from a stint on Jay Leno's Tonight Show, during which Howard Stern spanked topless women on Gene Siskel's lap, movie critic Roger Ebert moderated a panel at the Western Cable Show here this morning on how cable is evolving to serve consumers. Ebert began the session by offering his own thoughts on what the future may bring.
According to Ebert, if cable companies are going to bring the Internet to 60 million cable subscribers, we might end up with a nation full of computerless households in which users point and click on a galaxy of Web pages through their TV. Gambling and other sorts of gaming may also take off, he said.
This morning's panelists included Peter Barton, president and CEO of Liberty Media; Anthea Disney, editor in chief of News Corp/MCI Online Ventures; and Richard Frank, chair of C3.
The introduction of the cable modem may be bad news for content providers and good news for cable providers, according to the panelists. Barton said there's no doubt that the advent of cable modems will change the future of television. "The television will become nothing more than a monitor, and all the data in the world will be accessible," said Barton, who added that such units should be available within a year.
"It will be on all the time, so if you're walking by and you see some information you want, you can just get it," added Frank.
Once the interactive future arrives "the democracy of the click" will prevail. Future users will be able to move from network TV to the Web, to cable offerings. "Clicking from place to place may mean you pay for content in different ways," said Frank. Because of that, said Ebert, competition among content providers will escalate dramatically. Barton said that all content providers, however, will be negatively affected by being just one of hundreds out there. How providers reach a mass market might be altered by this change. "You'll be able to reach 40 million people, but not at the same time," said Disney.
The magazine business already went through this, according to Frank. "Years ago, we had mass market magazines, and they were replaced by smaller, more targeted offerings, and each time advertising revenue went up," he said.
Once choices have been expanded, it's only a matter of time before content providers use advanced technologies to guide users. "People want guidance. They want to be told what to watch," said Disney.
"Liberty already has a prototype device with a fingerprint interface that speaks to the user and stores information on what you've watched in the past," said Barton.
Guidance will remain a crucial issue, said Disney. "The Web is free, but it's useless unless you know where you're going," she said. Disney maintains that Web products such as News Corp/MCI's venture will be supported through a combination of subscription and advertising revenues. Of their current offerings, Disney said, "The Web site is a dress rehearsal for what we're working on behind the scenes."
As Ebert pointed out, one thing's for sure. "It's going to be exhausting to be an American entertainment consumer."