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Corporate communicators on the cutting edge.

Companies are exploiting the latest innovations in computers, satellites, and small format video to provide news and information to worldwide audiences.

IN THE AGE of information, television is the national grapevine. During the past two decades, the medium has reshaped the dynamics of politics, religion, journalism, and sports. Now, it is business, turn.

As companies deal with larger, more distant, and more diverse markets, video is replacing print as the communication mode of choice. Since 1973, the corporate television industry has doubled in size approximately every two years, and--despite cutbacks, layoffs, and downsizing--continues to grow at a rate of about 17.5% annually. Currently, better than 750,000 firms regularly employ video services and personnel. In 1991, these organizations spent $8,000,000,000 turning out up to 10 times more programming than all broadcast and cable TV companies combined.

Yet, the numbers of dollars and programs notwithstanding, corporate television remains relatively obscure. One reason is that its presentations are not public events. They represent private interests, sometimes shrouded in secrecy. Companies use video to preview products and services, train workers, and present news--good and bad --to employees and shareholders.

Even those programs open to public scrutiny may leave audiences less than enthralled. It is not that corporate television can't be entertaining. Much of it is. However, the overriding message is always about business.

It is a precept that dates back to the turn of the century, when businesses relied on silent movies to help peddle their wares. By World War II, film had become a popular business medium that prevailed throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Then, a new act burst onto the scene--multi-image. Gravity-feed slide projectors and fast-sequencing carousels upstaged antiquated film strips and flip charts, while enhancements such as dissolve units, multi-image programmers, and multi-channel audio transformed ordinary slide shows into sight-and-sound extravaganzas. By 1973, corporations were producing more than 200,000,000 slides annually.

That was also the year Sony introduced the U-Matic, the first three-quarter-inch videocassette. Orginally designed for the home market, the color player/recorder fared poorly because it was expensive and hard to handle. The consumer's loss was industry's gain.

Corporations quickly adapted to the advantages of television. Programs produced on video could be duplicated and distributed more cost-effectively than film or slides could. The advent of smaller, portable cameras and editing systems also meant that companies could escape the restraints of the studio and move their productions directly into offices and factories. In less than 20 years, the number of corporate television facilities has grown from fewer than 300 to more than 10,000.

New technologies continue to be a driving force, as developments in satellites, digital video, and interactive multimedia that have yet to work their way into broadcast or cable are becoming essential to corporate TV operations. Unencumbered by strict quality standards and constantly pushed to the bottom line, corporate producers have made the most of economical innovations. "Business is redefining video," notes Douglas Brush, executive vice president of the market research firm of D/J Brush Associates. "What was once a variation of television is now defined in terms of other technologies, particularly the computer."

Indeed, with computers as basic as a MacIntosh or Amiga, producers can write scripts, budget productions, and keep track of schedules and locations all on the same machine. By adding a few components, they can edit tape and create an array of graphics and visual effects that are barely distinguishable from systems costing five to 10 times as much. Video even can be integrated with text to produce live-action and animated documents.

Just as desktop publishing altered the traditional relationship among writers, editors, and designers, its video counterpart has "leveraged the individual within the company," Brush points out. "Where you once had various departments do these things, now one person can get them done. "

What's more, the merger of computers and TV is shifting control of the medium from the producer to the end-user. Audiences now can pick and choose from among, and within, various programs, customizing content to meet their needs. Viewers simply can watch what is on or interact with a presentation via a keyboard, touch screen, or mouse. They also may have the option to take part directly in an on-screen experience through vividly realistic simulations. Whatever the case, the distinction between creators and users of corporate television is blurring.

Yet, as the means of production are being transformed, so is distribution. Business television is a term coined in the mid 1980s by Kathleen Hansell, president of KJH Communications, to describe private systems that transmit programs almost exclusively by satellite. While similar to traditional TV networks, business television differs in two significant respects--its audiences are specially targeted, and they can talk back.

In 1986, JC Penney was the only retailer to own and operate such a network. Since then, it has been joined by Sears, Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Domino's Pizza, and Jiffy Lube. Each of the Big Three automakers regularly distribute training and information programs to employees and dealers nationwide. Federal Express produces a daily five-minute report for couriers on weather and route conditions. More than 75 companies, universities, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations manage networks linking them with workers, students, customers, and constituents at remote sites around the world.

Though much of the programming is prerecorded, the singular advantage of satellite networks is their capacity for live, two-way television. Until recently, such interactivity was limited to telephone questions and answers, much like daytime talk shows. Now, computerized systems, Hansell explains, allow the audience to respond throughout the program: "As I ask questions, viewers push buttons to answer |yes' or |no.' The information is input into a computer which reports back to me. With my software, I can determine if people are listening or not. It's an important addition to a presentation because it provides for a lot of feedback."

Effective feedback, however, requires an audience willing to interact with the new technologies, and that is the other force driving the success of corporate television --a generation of managers, employees, and professionals weaned on the tube and as comfortable turning dials as pages. Unlike their seniors who remember a world without TV, they are as literate in sounds and images as in the printed word, and, as often as not, prefer to do business that way.

"These days, executives are more fastidious about presentation and persona," indicates Jack Hilton, whose New York-based consulting firm advises top management in the use of television. "They are more willing to mix it up with the press, as well as share information on the inside." Many of Hilton's earlier clients had no great appetite for this kind of activity. Now, there is no reluctance whatsoever."

While TV has been a technology of preference in the past, it clearly will be a necessity in the years to come. "There's no doubt that there's a correlation between the increased use of television and the fact that 20 or 25% of the American workforce is functionally illiterate," maintains Hilton.

Little wonder then that the use of video is on the ascendancy as more new workers come from the "Sesame Street" and "MTV" generations. Not only do they read less, but, according to a study by the Times Mirror Center for People and the Press, they know and care less about the world around them than any generation in the past 50 years. This is occurring at a time when they continuously must add to their body of knowledge to survive in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

The American Society for Training and Development estimates that 50,000,000 workers will need to learn new skills to handle future jobs. Another 37,000,000 will require entry-level training between now and the turn of the century. The cost to business will be 90,000,000,000 a year.

Much of that money already is finding its way into corporate television. Of all the programs produced in 1990, reports the research firm of Frank N. Magid Associates, 38% was for training. Companies like Domino's Pizza produce and distribute programs on topics ranging from how to deal with customers to how to organize a franchise. In the computer industry, users of visual training run the gamut from Apple to Zenith.

Corporate television is not immune to economic realities, however, and, despite its growth, many companies have had to learn to do more with less. According to Hope Reports, Inc., a media research firm in Rochester, N.Y., the number of production centers has declined during the last few years, with the average size of TV staffs falling from 14 to nine. "Television operations have taken more of a beating than other media, because of the expense."

One result has been a growing dependence on outside contractors. Since the mid 1980s, the number of independent producers has jumped more than 50%. As companies have cut back, a number of corporate television people who lost their jobs have gone into business for themselves.

They are not alone. Increasingly, broadcasters are uncovering opportunities in the corporate sector. "If you are unemployed and want to continue your career in television, you go where the jobs are," advises Hilton. Unemployment is not necessarily a prerequisite. Many, like Hilton, who also produces for public and commercial broadcasting, successfully straddle both sides of the fence. "If you do something for broadcast and your work is intermittent, how do you pay the staff and keep the lights on between projects?," he asks. "There can be an ongoing flow of revenue from corporate TV."

Blurring the differences

In fact, it soon may be difficult to differentiate among broadcast, cable, and corporate television. Owners of some private networks have begun seeking advertising and closely are monitoring Whittle Communication's Channel One as a prototype for such business. Conversely, Capital Cities/ABC's "Lifetime Network" devotes more than 12 hours of its Sunday schedule to the medical profession, and ESPN is the host channel for BizNet, a programming subsidiary of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

At the same time, corporate television also may lose its identity within the company. "I don't think it will exist in a separate context," states Brush, who believes that, as equipment gets more user-friendly, companies will no longer need technical specialists. What they will need instead, will be communicators."

In all probability, corporate TV in the 1990s will be more about messages and concepts than technology and technique. Television professionals still will need to understand the capacity of their tools, and, as companies globalize, more and more programs will be produced beyond the walls of offices--even beyond national borders. Today, the average corporate TV budget is close to 300,000, though many are in the millions, and "our crews are as likely to be in the rain forests of Venezuela as on the streets of New York," indicates Hilton.

Nevertheless, corporate TV professionals are not in the television business. They are involved in finance, manufacturing, government, and science, and they often are called on to be trainers, managers, marketers, and salespeople as well as producers.

Moreover, while their audiences may be relatively small and select, they also are more diverse. By the end of the decade, 85% of all entrants into the workforce will be women, minorities, and immigrants, and they will bring with them very different cultures and values.

If producers effectively are to assume their numerous roles and reach various audiences, they must do so through the most practical means of communication. It will not always be television. The medium no longer is the message, and, as messages change, so will modes of delivery. In the future, images, sounds, printed words, even personal appearances, will be integrated within a single presentation. Technologies like computers and satellites will make the program possible, but it will be the responsibility of the corporate communicator to make it successful.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:corporate television
Author:Gross, Howard
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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