NBC stakes a claim on PC-TV future

Having learned a painful lesson from the cable industry two decades ago, NBC is positioning itself to be the unquestioned leader of the anticipated PC-TV convergence market.

CNET News staff
5 min read
Having learned a painful lesson from the cable industry two decades ago, NBC is positioning itself to be the unquestioned leader of the anticipated PC-TV convergence market.

  Twenty years ago when cable affiliates started to spread across the country, the Big Three networks were caught by surprise and let upstarts like CNN raid American homes once happy with three channels.

Now, the major computer vendors are talking about making PCs the entertainment center of the home in a convergence of the computer and the television markets that many expect to start by the end of this year. And NBC, for one, doesn't want to be surprised again.

"We want to make sure that however end users get their information and entertainment, we want to be a part of that process," said Mike Wheeler, president of NBC Desktop Video. "NBC didn't want to make the same mistake twice."

The National Broadcasting Company was the first American television network and the first to broadcast in color and stereo. Today, the NBC peacock has squared off its territory in the PC-TV convergence market, a new kind of entertainment designed to combine computer processing, television broadcasting, and Internet-based information delivery in a single consumer device priced for the average family.

NBC will have to wait for others to make and popularize these revolutionary electronic boxes, but in the meantime it's wasting no time: the network is preparing to exploit them when the rest of the world catches up.

Image from www.nbc.com
Olympic moments are captured digitally through the network's coverage online
This summer, NBC will use Intel's new Intercast technology to combine 70 hours of live prime-time and weekend Olympic Games coverage with data transmissions that users can view from their Web browsers. A track fan, for example, might be able to look up times for every race run by a favorite athlete while watching her warm up to win the gold. NBC's Intercast programming will draw on the 3,000-plus pages on NBC's Olympic Web site, plus material developed specifically for the simultaneous TV-Internet broadcasts.

On July 15, NBC and joint venture partner Microsoft will also launch its widely anticipated 24-hour cable channel, MSNBC, which will again coordinate news coverage from NBC anchors and correspondents with a daily electronic operation that publishes news and features to the Web.

The network is also producing Intercast segments of award-winning drama series "Homicide: Life on the Street" and at least one other NBC news or sports program; high-tech publicity events like the "first cybercast from the top of the world," Web coverage of Everett Assault '96; and Internet coverage of the presidential election.

Paul Rosengren
of NBC discusses
strategy for
interactive media
(RealAudio file)
"This is the true introduction of interactive television into the home," Tom Rogers, NBC executive vice president and the man spearheading NBC's interactive efforts, said in a prepared statement. "The convergence of the PC, TV, and the Internet is here, now."

NBC believes it: The network is estimating that 12 million PCs will be sold in the next 18 months with the extra hardware needed to receive Intercast broadcasts. By Christmas, Wheeler said, "it will be hard to buy a TV without an Intercast card built in."

When that happens, the network wants to be number one not only over ABC and CBS, but also over the cable networks and anyone else that might come out of the woodwork in a new industry. And so far, the network is positioned well to reach its goal.

Image from www.nbc.com
"Digital Bob" is an original online comic strip featured on http://www.nbc.com

NBC's major network rival on the Web is CNN, which has already its 24-hour news service on the Internet. But while CNN focuses on news, NBC is also using its Net presence to promote its entertainment and sports offerings, as are ABC, CBS, and Fox. NBC is even already making its own contributions to cyberculture with Web-centric features, such as "HyperChannels" that carry the "Digital Bob" comic strip and other features.

NBC has also sewn up close alliances with the two biggest of the big in the PC industry: Microsoft and Intel. While any TV broadcaster could take advantage of Intercast technology, NBC is the first to experiment with it widely, and Intel is not likely to forget the favor of being promoted with the Olympics. The company has committed to advertising on both the Web and TV versions of the Olympics and the "Homicide" series.

As for competing with Web publishers, NBC and the other networks enjoy a significant advantage from its vast archives of expensive video, especially as bandwidth expands on the Net and makes video-casting into the home a realistic opportunity.

But it might not be that easy to dominate a technological market still unproven and mostly undefined. Its competitors in the cable market say they don't see that NBC has any particular advantage over them, despite its alliances, Intercast Olympics, and brand-new cable channel.

Rosengren comments on
balance between new
and traditional media
(RealAudio file)
Scott Woelfel, editor in chief of CNN Interactive, thinks NBC's news initiatives with Microsoft move both companies beyond their core competencies. "Look at the two partners," he said. "One is a broadcaster who has used the Web almost exclusively for promotion [of entertainment programs]. The other is a software company."

"It's unclear what the [Internet] user is going to see," Woelfel added. "We're online to do news. We don't want to own the Internet; we don't want to get you to watch a program on TV. Why wouldn't a user rely on a CNN or another news organization to get news?"

It may not be entirely fair, however, to cast NBC in the role of technological neophyte: its Desktop Video service, a two-year-old subscription that provides live financial news to PCs, owns the market for desktop news on Wall Street, counting 90 percent of brokerage houses as customers.

"We look at what are you doing with your leisure time, what are you doing at work in how you get information," Wheeler added. "If 20 percent of people watching prime time are also at their computers, we want to be sure we have a presence in that area."