Be Your Own Network

By: Joseph Pratt

It was the mid 1990's and, being a fresh college graduate, I was talking shop with friends in the middle of the night in a half empty bar. The stranger beside us let us know that he was an executive from CBS even though no one had asked. Apparently our chat was the stuff of public scrutiny, but the stranger's input was not unwelcome. Besides, he looked around thirty-five. Maybe he knew something.
The guy was engaging. He enjoyed talking more than listening, but when he did listen he nodded in sympathy with our concerns and judiciously fielded questions. He took pains to ensure we knew in which direction the television business was headed. I forget his name, but I'll never forget his words: "You will be your own network."
I don't know if it was his dramatic, vodka-soaked delivery or my own indulgence that left me susceptible to profundity, but his authoritative declaration filled the moment. I didn't know anything about the Internet back then. I was vaguely aware of a looming computer age, if only through the covers of magazines.

I thought about what consumer freedom, networks, and technology meant to me. I imagined super televisions with built-in cable, video games and massive computer chips. (Don't forget, in those days I was more beer savvy than anything else.) My primitive conception of convergence had been stirred.
Those were heady days of convergence. For the non-participatory it was more a matter of being on the outside and not looking for anything, as opposed to being on the outside and looking in. Changes were afoot, but, really, who knew? In a few short years telephone companies would be in the television business, Internet providers would become media machines, as software companies and search engines would vie for supremacy.
Deals were made and business was done at a dizzying rate. Computer companies whose names and products we had not even heard of, let alone used, were being swallowed up at a brisk pace. Such was the lot of technology. Yet other business sectors were not following suit in this hectic development.
That's because convergence is a natural phenomenon where unrelated companies can become bedfellows (or competitors) overnight with the introduction of new digital applications or capabilities. Convergence hasn't been a forced march, but a technological confluence that's accelerated the process of bringing technology to the consumer that revolutionizes our lives.
I see it in online advertising - in search. ICMediaDirect.com, an online advertising agency, owes everything to the infrastructure upon which its network is built. What the heck did connectivity mean in the 1990's? What ads would we run? Would we be making phone calls to various sales departments and living rooms - who would answer anyway? A generation of entrepreneurs were keeping themselves busy doing something else then. Perhaps they were cutting lawns or selling insurance, I don't know.
That old bar was not the only hotbed of convergence when that boozy prophet spoke to me: &bull The mid 1990's brought us the personal computer. They became practical and affordable. Today they are in 75% of American households.
&bull During this same period big companies, like AOL and Microsoft, built connectivity infrastructure on a large scale as many other smaller ISPs emerged to provide affordable online connection for the masses.
&bull Local area networks technology (LAN) became universalized. This was an important step for corporations to be able to connect to wider area networks. This was considered the Internet's "building blocks".
&bull Advances in hardware and software platforms let companies and developers build practical server software and applications on an affordable scale. Until then, what constituted web servers were pricey and dicey affairs.
&bull Digital media creation tools. By the mid-1990s software introduced wild improvements in graphics, text, and audio. Digital media advancements stoked enough appeal to fire the engines of infrastructural improvements.
Again, individually, these were fine tech developments. But together they unwittingly built an amazing platform from which we're communicating right now. And the process of convergence hasn't ended, it's just tough to recognize until results are a little more tangible.
Allow me to present with another comparison. Maybe we're witnessing something big during these Winter Olympics. Standard ratings might be down, but don't be fooled, there's more to the story. With more than a week of coverage left the NBC's Olympic website had already drawn 167 million viewers to their site, that's some 20 million more than all of the 2002 Salt Lake visitors. And 2006's website is a vastly improved one.

Internet and television: are they two competing media or a one-two combination? NBC answers this question by effectively harnessing the compatibilities of both. Digital capability is being used to support on-air offerings, not to steal viewers. If anything, they complement each other.

To NBC there isn't too much difference. They've already streamed 4.2 million videos online. That's 4.2 million uniquely viewed ads on top of that 167 million viewers to their website, not too shabby. NBC is employing convergence utility today and winning on both fronts. Their digital offerings allow added information, more video than ever, and information on when they can see events on the television.

I'm still on board the "You will be your own network" concept. It's a sturdy vantage from which to view the seamless progression in media. It means simply that the end user has more choice due to the generous nature of technology.

Permit me to pick up where my television executive pal left off about a decade ago and play the role of convergence prophet. We have all the insight we need to see the future. We've got to appreciate what works today and anticipate the merging paths of media. I think Search TV is on its way.

Imagine television online. Come on, I know it's hard, but try. Think of all that content: movies, sitcoms, sports, news clips, blooper specials - all of it. I envision this exhaustive load being digitized and stored on giant video-on-demand servers. So far, not much of a prediction...I know. Not until search enters the equation.

We are going to be able to run searches through our television sets in much the same way we now do through Google or Yahoo. We'll get results quickly and with them we'll get relevant ads stemming from search criteria. They will be presented neatly on screen in boxes.

Advertising revenue will eliminate today's pay-per-view format and viewers will get exactly what they are looking for or at least something that interests them. Eventually, Bruce Springsteen will have to stop playing "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)" live since Search TV will be commonplace before his retirement. But Bruce won't be too upset since he'll be his own network, too.

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