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That's infotainment.

About a year ago, I tuned in to a panel discussion on television comedy that included its history, noted accomplishments, and failures. The panel members all began their careers working on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows series in the 1950s and included such legendary figures as Larry Gelbart (co-creator of M*A*S*H) and Carl Reiner (creator of the original The Dick Van Dyke Show).

While discussing how television comedy had changed over the years, Gelbart pointed out that the nature of comic writing for television changed along with audience demographics. At the beginning, television was so new and in so few homes that the trend was simply to adapt (or, to use an uglier but au courant term, "re-purpose") routines honed in vaudeville and burlesque (ergo, Milton Berle's Uncle Miltie).

As the medium took off and sales burgeoned, comics like Sid Caesar added more sophisticated material; Bob Hope integrated political humor. Gelbart pointed to how comedy writers of the period used a more extensive vocabulary than is generally used today, because the people watching television had a higher education level. This matched the higher income level it took to buy television sets.

Ubiquitous Mass Media

Then, of course, television became a dominant mass medium everywhere. At that point, tiers of sophistication could occur since there would be enough audience for different kinds of shows and enough advertisers with enough products aimed at different types of viewers. On the other hand, ratings gave a high reward to shows with the broadest appeal. Now, with digital cable offering hundreds of channels, there are markets for everything: high, low, and lower still. The pattern went from niche to universal to universal niches.

And now television is heading our way. Five years ago, the big techie buzzword was convergence. It indicated a merger of all sorts of digital devices--in particular, the integration of the Internet and its Web with television. It didn't happen as predicted, but it looks like this time convergence may actually occur.

Already we can see the television industry aiming at cell phones and PDA screens, pushing videocasts, podcasts, iTunes, etc. Major studios and primetime networks are packaging video delivery of episodes to digital devices. Every computer being sold can handle DVDs and other multimedia content. Close to 50 percent of cell phones sold last year were camera phones, up from 6 percent in 2003. Broadband reaches more than half of the Internet searchers in the country. Microsoft recently proposed inexpensive cell phone-based computers that would connect to televisions and keyboards as a way to bring citizens of poor Third World countries onto the Net.

So it's coming. What will that mean to traditional information industry players and even some of the not-so-new-anymore Net newbies? Change, adaptation, restructuring of technology platforms, redesign of interfaces, and vigorous customer research. It'll also take assertive customer feedback systems, new and innovative alliances, mergers and acquisitions, sellouts and capitulations, new business models, and innovative revenue-seeking behavior.

Following the Right Course

In other words, here we go again. But let's get it right this time. Let's try to stop arguing about who gets to sit in the front and who gets the oar with the smoothest handle while we're stuck in a lifeboat in the mid-Atlantic. Instead, let's concentrate on getting to shore as quickly as possible. Let's remember that we've all gone through a revolution already. The last quarter century has seen the information world turned upside down and inside out.

At this point, we should have enough experience to gauge what will work and for whom and what won't. We should know what looks like an opportunity and what constitutes a threat, what will support a partnership and what requires a buy out or a sellout. In a world where a Baby Bell has ended up owning its Ma, all things are possible, but all things are also vulnerable.

As for those who seek refuge in the assumption that workplace environments will save them from the need to change, there's no peace for the wicked, I'm afraid. In a world where enterprises are turning to VoIP to reduce telephone costs and using computer conferencing and podcasts to train and educate staff, it's unlikely that multimedia computers will be viewed as inappropriate for the office environment.

Pressures from Home

In any case, it would only be a matter of time before the pressure from home users reached the workplace. Remember the lessons of the revolution we have already been through. Do I have to go through the tedium of looking up all those claims that serious searchers would only use serious (aka subscription) search services, never that Johnny-Jump-Up, Google? Or should I go back and find all those dusty press releases distributed by traditional search services, each claiming that their volume of content was larger than the World Wide Web's? That's a neat anti-Euclidean trick when you consider the services were already on the Web. Do you remember high school geometry, where a part cannot be greater than the whole?

In next month's column, I'll try to pin down what post-convergence reality may look like, but let me give you a preview of coming attractions: new revenue models, in particular advertisers and sponsors everywhere, and answer products that rely on reducing content to usable, relevant, and--hopefully--accurate chunks. Multimedia, multimedia, multimedia. Miniaturized content, along with multifaceted content flow, new networks of suppliers, and new critical platform partners.

What won't the new reality look like? It won't look like it does today. Even Google is facing the challenge of adapting and revising its services for the emerging world order Yahoo! has set its sights on infotainment. Its new CEO had to learn about computers and the Net when he was hired; "show biz" was his background.

As the great Bette Davis once warned, "Fasten your seat belts! It's going to be a bumpy night."

Barbara Quint is editor of Searcher magazine. Her e-mail address is Send your comments about this column to
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Title Annotation:television
Author:Quint, Barbara
Publication:Information Today
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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