Content as Code: Doing Digital Shows


For those cable veterans who have to be hit over the head
to understand that "programming" is not just putting another off-air syndicated
TV show into the lineup, slam your noggin almost anywhere on the Web. The onslaught of
original interactive programming – or "content" as the Webheads deign to
call it – is just the first wave of a digital tsunami that will have a massive impact
on broadband digital services.

Moreover, the Web's growing electronic commerce and transactional sites tease the
possibilities of what can happen on an integrated, media-rich digital platform. This is
not merely about high-speed access to data sites via cable modems. It's also about the
near-term prospects for new kinds of video content to set-top boxes – material that
will make the living-room screen competitive with the desktop screen, that is supposedly
(Nielsen says) diverting all those eyeballs. Many of the digital opportunities are shaping
up as value-added components that make today's linear video programs more valuable.

Indeed, the first opportunities may belong to programmers who can envision and create
shows that take advantage of the arsenals of computer code now being written. As a keen
media/management scholar recently characterized it, this is a great opportunity for
"content with code": a world in which programming is intertwined with a computer
database of allied material.

Home shopping channels figured this out quickly, with Web site spinoffs such as QVC Interactive and HSN's several venues. Now the path is moving things
from the Web back toward the TV environment.

Some of these possibilities will take shape at the local level. For example, the video
real estate showcases (actually just local infomercials for realtors) take on added impact
if they have real-time components. Numerous realty Web sites offer virtual house tours and
on-demand information. The arrival of Microsoft and Intuit, in addition to a dozen
entrepreneurs and realty professionals, has added credence to this category. Now more than
a dozen major mortgage services are establishing Web footholds, allowing almost
instantaneous lending or refinancing from the desktop.

Although the online mortgages today represent merely a fraction of the $1.3 trillion U.S.
residential mortgage business, the industry recognizes that it is changing the way house-
buying works. A recent Robertson Stephen investment analysis of e-mortgages concluded that
they "truly add value and would be worthwhile to the consumer (even) without
pass-through savings." The latter is a reference to the discounts of up to 0.8
percent off today's low rates that are available via the online mortgage services.

Closer to video, however, there are examples of how code-for-content may change the look
of television. No one has categorically figured out how Web programming concepts will
translate across media. Certainly there have been some early crossover attempts, such as
The Spot, an online soap opera, which flopped last year after an overhyped run.
News-on-demand features, such as the Web sites of CNN,
CNBC and MSNBC that include streaming video, offer some
hints about media transmogrification.

It's worth keeping an eye on these systems to see what they can generate for the broadband

The crossover works in both directions, suggesting that some TV-to-Web ventures will spawn
content heading back to TV. For example, Sony Online
has leveraged its parent company's familiar TV brands, Jeopardy
and Wheel of Fortune, which can be played on the Sony Station Web site. Sony is ready to
launch an interactive tournament with these games, in which Webheads pay an entry fee and
can win big prizes (not just caps and T-shirts) for their victories.

More significantly, Sony Station has leveraged the attraction of its brand-name games
(with millions of visitors per week) to buy and/or build a new roster of online games,
such as "Fantasy War," ChronX," "Out of Order" and "Take
5." The latter is a multi-player game show with simulated Las Vegas style scoring.

Many of Sony's games are aimed at Gen-X players, but watching them – or playing them
– for a while provides a vivid image of what or how these programs
("content-as-code") could be exploited into video shows – or hooked into
new video content using the interactive digital networks.

Of course, there's already a dismal track record of attempts to convert video games into
TV shows or movies: Mortal Kombat, SuperMario Brothers. No need to say more.

Yet the fertile creative worlds of Web content – either as stand-alone data or
integrated into conventional video programs – promises to bring a long roster of new
programs for the new audiences of the digital era. This week's Internet World trade show
in New York offers a glimpse of some of these ideas, in digital fiction as well as
nonfiction/reality content.

For traditionalists, it's hard to understand the appeal or long-term value of all this
digital code. But some pioneers certainly get the message. Undoubtedly Geraldine Laybourne
gets it, as she establishes Oxygen Media
to build digital programs, initially for America
and other Web distribution. Not surprisingly, AOL president Bob
Pittman (an MTV and "old" media veteran) sees the migration and the value of
developing content with computer code – part of his vision for AOL-TV.

The digital highway will go both ways, between living room and desktop (or laptop)
screens, guided by programming.

Programming with code.

I-Way Patrol Columnist Gary Arlen adheres to the digital code-of-conduct, usually
ready in Version 2.0.