Message: 14
Date: 8.1.94
From: <nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: <lr@wired.com>

Prime Time Is My Time: The Blockbuster Myth

Most equipment and network providers believe that entertainment will finance the superhighway and that video-on-demand, VOD, is the driving force or killer app of our wired future. I do not disagree with this view, but I marvel at the short-sighted, incomplete, and outright misleading conclusion drawn from it. The case for VOD goes as follows: Let's say a videocassette-rental store has a selection of 2,000 tapes. Suppose it finds that 5 percent of those tapes result in 90 percent of all rentals. Most likely, a good portion of that 5 percent would be new releases and would represent an even larger proportion of the store's rentals if the available number of copies were larger.

Videocassette-rental stores will go out of business within a decade. (It makes no sense to ship atoms when you can ship bits.) The easy conclusion is that the way to build an electronic Blockbuster is to offer only those top 5 percent, those primarily new releases. Not only would this be convenient, it would provide tangible and convincing evidence for what some still consider an experiment. It would take too much time and money to digitize all 29,000 movies made in America by 1990. It would take even more time to digitize the 30,000 TV programs stored in the Museum of Television & Radio in New York, and I'm not even considering the movies made in Europe, the tens of thousands from India, or the 12,000 hours per year of soaps made in Mexico by Televisa.

The question remains: Do most of us really want to see just that top 5 percent? Or, is this herd phenomenon driven by the old technologies of distribution?

Some of the world's senior cellular telephone executives recite this jingle: "anything, anywhere, anytime." These three A's are a sign of being modern and being wired (and wireless, actually). When I hear this mantra I try not to choke, because my goal is to have "nothing, nowhere, never" unless it is timely, important, amusing, relevant, or capable of engaging my imagination. AAA stinks as a paradigm for human communication -- agents are much better. But AAA is a beautiful way to think about TV.

We hear a great deal of talk about 1,000 channels of TV. Allow me to point out that, even without satellite, more than 1,000 programs are delivered to your home each day! Admittedly, they are sent at all -- and odd -- hours. The 150-plus channels of TV listed in Satellite TV Week add another 2,700 or more programs available per day. If your TV could store every program transmitted, you would already have five times the selectivity offered in the superhighway's broad-brush style of thinking. But, instead of keeping them all, have your agent-TV grab the one or two in which you might have interest, for you to see anywhere and anytime.

Let AAATV expand to a global infrastructure: the quantitative and qualitative changes become interesting. Some people might listen to French television to perfect their French, others might follow Swiss Cable's Channel 11 to see unedited German nudity (at 5 p.m. New York time), and the 2 million Greek Americans might catch any one of the three national or seven regional channels of Greece. The British devote 75 hours per year to the coverage of chess championships and the French commit 80 hours of broadcasting to the Tour de France. Surely American chess and bicycle enthusiasts would enjoy access to these events -- anytime, anywhere.

My point is simple: the broadcast model is what is failing. "On-demand" is a much bigger concept than not-walking-out-in-the-rain or not-forgetting-a-rented-cassette-under-the-sofa-for-a-month. It's consumer pull versus media push, my time -- the receiver's time -- versus the transmitter's time.

Rethreaded TV
Beyond recalling an existing movie or playing any of today's (or yesterday's) TV around the world (roughly 15,000 concurrent channels), VOD could provide a new life for documentary films, even the dreaded "infomercial." The hairs of documentary filmmakers will stand on end when they hear this. But it is possible to have TV agents edit movies on the fly, much like a professor assembling an anthology using chapters from different books.

If I were contemplating a visit to the southern coast of Turkey, I might not find a documentary on Bodrum, but I could find sections from movies about wooden-ship building, nighttime fishing, underwater antiquities, and Oriental carpets. These all could be woven together to suit my purpose. The result would not be an "A+" in Introductory Filmmaking. But one doesn't expect an anthology to be Shakespeare. In fact, one judges production values through the eyes of the beholder. It would help to thread chunks made by great organizations such as National Geographic, PBS, or BBC, but the result would have meaning only to me.

Cottage Television
Finally, the 3.1 million camcorders sold in the US last year cannot be ignored. If the broadcast model is colliding with the Internet model, as I firmly believe it is, then each person can be an unlicensed TV station. Yes, Mr. Vice President, this is what you said in LA. Even before we understand how the Internet will function as a commercial enterprise, we must reckon with uncountable hours of video.

I am not suggesting we consider every home movie to be a prime-time experience. What I am saying is that we can nowthink of TV as a great deal more than high-production-value mass media when the content strikes home, so to speak. Most telecommunications executives understand the need for broadband into the home. (Recall, broadband, for me, is 1.5 to 6 Mbits per household member, not Gbits). What they cannot fathom is the need for a back channel of similar capacity.

The video back channel is already accepted in teleconferencing and is a particularly fashionable medium in divorced families for the parent who does not have custody of the children. That's live video. Consider "dead" video. In the near future, individuals will be able to run video servers in the same way that 57,000 Americans run computer bulletin boards today. That's a television landscape of the future which looks like the Internet. Point to multipoint may swing dramatically toward multipoint to multipoint, on my time.

Next Issue: Why Europe is Unwired (Part One)

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[Copyright 1994, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 2.08 August 1994.]