Why Robert Iger Really Needs Steve Jobs

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Two weeks ago today, on the first day of the National Show, The Walt Disney Co. took attention away from the network-based digital video recorder and diverted it to its latest experiment in delivering hit shows from its ABC Television Network.

Only four shows are involved: Lost, Alias, Desperate Housewives and Commander in Chief. The salient point is that the shows are being put online free of charge, after they first appear on ABC.

This boils down to a pricing test. In October, CEO Robert Iger first stirred things up, through a deal with Steve Jobs, the iconic chief of Apple Computer Inc. The idea: Let fans download ABC shows to the iPod. In that case, customers would have to pay $1.99 to get Desperate Housewives or Lost.

At TelecomNext in January, Iger said 4 million copies of ABC shows had been sold through the iTunes Music Store that feeds all iPods. Sounds big. But it’s not. It’s $8 million. Maybe two hours worth of advertising on ABC on any given night.

More interesting will be to watch how close Iger and Jobs get. In January, Disney agreed to buy Jobs’ other company — digital animator Pixar Inc. — for $7.4 billion. In February, Barron’s, a Dow Jones Co. publication, speculated on a merger of Apple with Disney.

But what Iger does not need is Apple Computer. What he needs is Steve Jobs. He should find a way to tie him up on a Manhattan Project that would make Disney a game-changer in the era of infinite content now descending on television.

The challenge: Develop an interface that works with a simple remote control and allows television viewers to find programs they’ll consider entertaining or informative from the unlimited sea of professionally-produced and amateur-generated video available through the Net or Internet Protocol television services or conventional cable or satellite services.

The reason: Some time in the next five years, the average household is going to be hooked up to television and Internet services at the same time, through the back of their set-top boxes or their digital brethren, the “media center.’’

Conventional program guides aren’t capable of sorting through an uncountable number of options. Search engines are relatively crude. They give you lots of choices.

But what a viewer is not interested in, at the end of a long working day, is searching for whatever they consider good video programming. They want to find it, instantly. There’s a big difference.

The mandate: Give me stuff I know and stuff I don’t know, but I know I’ll like.

A good example of this principle is the Web site Pandora.com. Have a favorite song? Tap in the name. The Music Genome Project will analyze its structure and characteristics and start spitting out an endless string of songs that fit the mold.

Something like that will have to be applied to the genetics of video programming. The company that comes up with the way to bring vast amounts of content into focus, in an easy-to-use way, will have cable operators, satellite operators, telephone companies and Internet outfits beating a path to its doors. Not to mention viewers.

Jobs is the only character to have built billion-dollar businesses based on the right interface for finding stuff on two different electronic platforms.

Sure, he borrowed the desktop screen symbols, pull-down menus and mouse clicker of the Xerox Star workstation, to make computing personal to non-geeks on the Macintosh computer 22 years ago.

But he followed up five years ago with the iPod. The scroll wheel was the no-manual required, immediately understood and simple way to sort through a thousand songs in your pocket. Or more.

Infinite choices have to be reducible to a few simple, clear ones. A person has to sit in a favorite easy chair with nary an exertion of brainpower and get what he or she wants, from all available sources, at any time. Over-the-air. Cable or satellite or telephone TV. The Internet. Downloads. Streams.

And not know or care where it came from or how it gets up on screen.

It’s a tall order. But someone’s got to do it.

If I were Robert Iger, I’d be paying Steve Jobs to figure it out. Done right, this would be an interface that has commercial value not just to Disney, but to any outfit willing to license it to make sense of the video explosion for paying customers.

The sooner, the better.

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