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The Test

The technology push applied by this convergence nicely matches the pull consumers are exerting. In decades past we spent our electronic-entertainment budgets on TV sets and got programming free over the airwaves. A “better” viewing experience meant buying a color TV, then one with a bigger screen. By the late 1980s, “better” meant “more,” and we bought subscriptions to cable or satellite television.

Today, we receive more channels than we can attend to. And we must wait for the few gems we care to view. What we really crave is “custom TV,” which would offer all the digital entertainment we wanted, whenever we wanted it. “We are moving from a subscription model to a usage model,” Bean says.

Marketers are continually telling us that if we spend enough money, we can have the future of TV now. But will the next big thing really pass the test of moving us closer to custom TV? Or will it just give us a nicer picture?

Go to your local electronics store and you’ll probably hear the same pitch I heard from Mitch, an overly exuberant sales guy. “This is the future of TV right here,” Mitch bubbles, pointing at a big-screen Philips Magnavox. “It’s home theater, really. And check out these babies: projection TVs. They’re really big. Or,” he turns in awe toward the private viewing room, “you can go for a flat, plasma display. The picture is really sharp. It’ll set you back $8,000, but man, it’s worth it.”

Do these contraptions get us the shows we want, when we want them? They have impressively large and crisp screens, but we want a new entertainment experience, not just a fancier image. Test failed.
Undaunted, the salesman swoons over the new “digital TVs,” one of which can display that big innovation we’ve heard about for a decade: high-definition television. But just try to find a digital broadcast. In 1996 the Federal Communications Commission passed a regulation requiring U.S. broadcasters to stop all analog broadcasts by 2006. To date, only a few networks, such as HBO and ABC, are sending digital signals; the rest are in no hurry to start. Still failing.

Okay, so Mitch can’t sell me the future of digital entertainment. How about my local cable TV distributor? Maybe it can send me some of that “interactive TV” programming (sometimes referred to as “enhanced TV”) I’ve been hearing about. Whoops: I have to set up my personal computer in the same room as my TV in order to play along with game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? And this ad hoc setup still won’t support the real promise of interactive TV, such as clicking on baseball’s highest-paid player, Alex Rodriguez, to see his stats when he comes to bat. Or ordering products that appear on a show’s set. Or-ultimately-finding only what I want and viewing it right then. The so-called Digital Television Application Software Environment standards needed for such interactions won’t be finalized until late this year, and televisions based on them probably won’t be available until 2003, according to Lynn Claudy, senior vice president for science and technology at the National Association of Broadcasters. And then, says Claudy, who participates in the international Advanced Television Systems Committee responsible for setting these standards, “the broadcast will have to be digital, and so will your TV.” It’s 2006 again.

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