Network: Fear and downloading

Digital Convergence may soon give TV viewers total control
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The Independent Culture
THE SIDEWALK was hotter than a Pentium III as I slid out of Vegas airport and edged over to a waiting taxi. The frames of my shades were hot, the cab's door handle was hot, the driver was Jamal.

"Where to?" he growled.

"NAB Convention. Sands Expo Center," I shot back at him.

"Traffic's gonna be bad," he said. "Nerd traffic is always bad."

I let the insult lie there and pulled out the programme for the National Association of Broadcasters' annual conference.

Digital Convergence is back in town, said the programme. I stopped as if I'd been hit with a 21-inch CRT. Digital Convergence had died back in the early Nineties, the victim of a bunch of flim-flam artists who said everything, including TV, was going to go digital on the information superhighway.

The only problem was that the info superhighway looked more like the digital driveway. Expensive phone connections, slow modems, and even slower government regulators made quick work out of the Digital Convergence guys. Those losers had said we'd have small, wireless digital appliances for information, and would use the TV for stuff like shopping. What a load of hypertext.

I had to get to the bottom of this. I checked the e-mail inbox on my cellphone - just the usual spam. I checked my voice mail - nothing important. I called the office and left a message that I was going to need help on this one. Then I left a message for a certain blonde in San Francisco - personal stuff, none of your business.

Jamal was busy cutting off a Microsoft bus when I spotted the clue right there in the program: Larry Ellison was in town, and he was going to squeal. I had to be there at 5pm in a back room at the Sands.

This was the break I needed. I paid Jamal and went into the NAB multimedia pavilion, where I blended into a sea of nerds. The big boys were pushing some hot goods: QuickTime 4, Microsoft Media Technologies, Real Networks G2 and some fast new software called Final Cut, but I stayed in the background.

Some of Ellison's boys had some action going. They were showing 105 simultaneous programs coming off a single server the size of a Silicon Valley mortgage payment.

"A hundred and five?" I said to one of the boys. "That pretty good?"

He gave me a funny look. "Wise guy, huh? Come back at five. Back room. Be alone."

A few hours later found me in the back room, but I wasn't alone. A couple of hundred other guys were there, twitchier than so many Microsoft executives at a Department Of Justice hearing.

Finally Ellison slipped into the room. He wore a black turtleneck and an $8.3 billion smile. He had a couple of TVs going. The picture was bad. The sound was bad. Typical broadcasters' show.

Ellison was mumbling something about a monster database, a huge server that would record 200 channels of television continuously. He said you could corner the market by letting people watch what they wanted when they want to. A certain blonde in San Francisco came to mind. She likes to watch late-night cop shows on Saturday afternoon. VCRs drive her crazy. She'd be a sucker for Ellison's gizmo.

I listened harder. Ellison was saying he gave the same digital convergence speech 10 years ago in the same joint, but this time it was real. He said his buddy Rupert Murdoch already had a racket going over in the UK called BIB, British Interactive Broadcasting. He had a guy come out and talk about it. He showed the TV Guide on Murdoch's system. It was different - it went back a couple of days. You could pick a programme almost a week old. He picked General Hospital. Bad choice. I hate soap operas.

Then Ellison gave us the real scoop. He said the database also recorded the choices of each viewer, so you could send them targeted commercials. Sell football tickets to some guys, ballet tickets to others. That way you can sell more stuff.

Then someone asks about operating systems. Ellison starts to get hot, and his guys move towards the doors. Time to go.

Got back to 'Frisco by nightfall. Email from the blonde: "Don't forget to pick up milk." I disappeared into the fog.