Another Digital Divide: Interindustry

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The latest surreal juxtaposition of trade conferences putthe digital dilemma in perspective. Ostensibly combined under one umbrella, the separate"Digital Hollywood" and "Digital TV Summit" events underscored therift between business demands and broadband dreams.

Appropriately, this all took place in Beverly Hills.

At the one-day DTV Summit, elegantly orchestrated by theConsumer Electronics Manufacturers Association, hundreds of retailers, TV-set makers andtechnicians -- but almost no digital programmers -- confronted the hard reality of gettingnew digital-TV hardware into homes.

They gloried that 50,000 DTV sets have been sold (at leastat the wholesale level) in the first 10 months of availability. (Of course, that'scompared with 2 million analog sets per month.)

But they fretted that standards are still in flux --notably the escalating debate about whether the currently adopted 8-VSB format should bereplaced by the globally adopted (except in North America) COFDM standard.

The CEMA offered a consoling dose of market research:

• More than 50 percent of customers who have seen DTV"become very unsatisfied with analog."

• Nearly 80 percent who have seen DTV expect that thenext TV set they buy will be digital.

• A total of 95 percent of DTV early owners"would make the same purchase again."

The research also confirmed consumers' complaints thatthe missing ingredient is the lack of programming, which was in plentiful supply elsewherein the building.

Unlike the DTV platform -- which remains a technology insearch of content -- the ubiquitous product at Digital Hollywood was programming in searchof a pipeline. Dozens of companies showed prototypes of content that is ready forcable-modem and DSL distribution.

There must be about 20 such broadband-content shows perweek (at least it seems like that many, since I stagger through several each month). Inthe few weeks since my previous visit, another avalanche of broadband-content visionarieshas materialized, all in search of distribution, or at least presence, through broadbandplatforms.

Clearly, the confines of dial-up systems have promptednarrowband-content packagers to expand their visions. More interesting, a next wave ofprogrammers are starting with rich-media and streaming content solely intended for theemerging big-pipe platforms.

In a classic mismatch of content and conduit, many of thesetechnology and e-commerce-driven program hopefuls seem to have barely a clue about wherethis material may appear.

Their task was not made easier by the almost total absenceof cable, telco or high-speed service packagers at Digital Hollywood.

Among the eye-catching ventures debuting there were"BreakTV.com," yet another attempt at what I call "two-minute TV." Thepromoters describe it as "Like television, only shorter."

For now, BreakTV.com consists of on-demand video clips fromsitcoms such as Leave It to Beaver -- viewers can buy the entire show on cassetteor DVD -- and the company says there are future pay-per-view plans.

"Popcast.com" dreams of a more user-centricapproach, tied into personal video mail and Webcasting. Its relationships with makers ofnew digital camcorders open the prospect for new kinds of two-way video programs.

"IFilm.net" is another in the growing array ofconsolidators offering independent films (nonstudio productions) for on-demand viewing.

Veon Inc. privately demonstrated its technology, which wasactually adopted by Excite@Home last week; Veon's tools enable the integration ofcontent and commerce on broadband platforms.

You get the idea. And there were dozens more like these --software and content, all in search of a platform.

Meanwhile, the rare cable-oriented presence offeredglimpses of the opportunity taking shape. For example, Gerard Kunkel of WorldGateCommunications shared new research about what his limited audience of Internet-on-TVcustomers is accessing:

• A total of 63 percent of customers check outWorldGate every day.

• They spend 1.03 hours per day on the service.

• The top five interactive networks (as ranked bytotal number of Channel HyperLinking Sessions) vary amongst WorldGate's three pilotmarkets, but they generally include NBC, ABC, ESPN and Nickelodeon's sites.

• Afternoons tend to be the most heavily used timeperiod, suggesting lots of school-age surfing.

I-Way Patrol columnist Gary Arlen marvels at the multilobedconference-goers who are both suits and ponytails.

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