Discontent Over Interactive Content

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Hooray! Hollywood wants to get into broadband programming.
Forget about "Siliwood" (the alliance of Silicon Valley and Hollywood expertise)
that was floated a few years ago. This time the folks from the "Digital Coast,"
as Los Angeles would like to be known, want the glory all to themselves.

True, no one is quite sure what broadband programming
means, nor what it will look like. But there are certainly lots of ideas. It's probably
not merely repurposed CD-ROM material (such as Media Station and Arepa are packaging). And
it's not made-for-high-speed (or streaming) video, although that is part of the equation.
To some, broadband content -- for the cable modem and/or digital cable platforms -- is
"enhanced broadcasting." That covers a range of features from on-screen
overlays, to material that triggers a coordinated DVD program to fully immersive
interactive commerce. There are both highly engineered offerings and simplistic video
games.

No fewer than four -- count 'em, four! -- conferences about
broadband content have been held in the past month, reminding us that creative appetites
are hungry to develop and sell their work. The folks with a view of Sunset Boulevard
really want to fill the digital pipelines.

The most intriguing of these broadband events was one run
by and for the creative community. The American Film Institute (through its
video-education arm) and Intel Corp. set up a two-day "Enhanced Television
Workshop" that not only showcased nearly two dozen interactive program concepts but
also nurtured a dozen more. Intel's sponsorship underscored that Silicon Valley is still
present (and that Intel was not scared off by its wacky involvement in a "Media
Lab" project at Creative Artists Agency a few years ago).

Although a few cable entities were on hand (Discovery
Networks, NBC, Warner Bros., Sony, OpenTV and Intertainer sent representatives to speak,
listen or do both), AFI's event focused on the creative side of the business, whatever
that means.

To some aging executives, it meant a shock of reality when
a 25-ish executive from Digital Entertainment Network -- after showing his firm's
short-form serials -- admitted he was getting "too old" for the target audience
of this digital content. DEN is one of many young companies concentrating on Generation-Y
interactive programs.

In contrast to its too-hip material, the "NBC
Teen" shows -- with Pop-Up Video-type overlays and inserts -- seemed, well,
sophomoric. At the same time, Pseudo Programs' shows, with erratic graphics (sometimes
stunning, often amateurish) were either hip-hop masterworks or simply dumb.

Nonetheless, there was a sense of exploratory interactivity
throughout these and AFI's other examples.

Recognizing the sure thing for enhanced content, Quokka
Sports demonstrated its "immersive sports" coverage, effectively putting viewers
into an event. Now available on the Web, look for lots of Quokka experiences during next
year's Olympics in Sydney, Australia (the hometown for the company's founders).

A startup company, Innovatv.com, demonstrated its
"i-Mags," which allow viewers to watch a show at their own speed. That is, the
i-Mags can grab frames from a sequence and offer the viewer the opportunity to review
them, repeat them or get additional information. Innovatv.com says it is preparing
material with the Golf Channel, enabling viewers, for example, to stop and study a golf
swing and pick up customized tips about the game.

Big Band Media, a company that is designing
"alternative-points-of-view" storylines for programs such as Showtime's Stargate
SG-1
, demonstrated its complex on-screen interface and plot. Again, the richness left
some older media executives gaping, but you could feel the excitement run through the
target audience. This was indeed a new way to tell the story.

And that was AFI's objective: to explore new methods of
storytelling, as well as to introduce the creative community to a new range of interactive
options. The AFI program was invigorating since the focus was on content, not
infrastructure. Although some of the concepts involved videoserver switching or
"hypervideo" interactivity, the agenda didn't dwell on hardware. That's not to
say the presentations were technically naïve.

These programming initiatives -- some of which may actually
find their way into home screens (living room or desktop) -- are a reminder that someone
is thinking about what to put through those high-tech lines. And that's what it will take
to get viewers to watch.

Hollywood knows is wants to be in the broadband business.
And, needless to say, it wants to direct.

I-Way Patrol Columnist Gary Arlen is not yet content with
any content.

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