Convergence is the most uncertain certainty in recent memory.
At some level, we all know the marriage of traditional broadcast and newer interactive technologies is on the way. But nobody seems to know what exactly the result of that marriage will be. There are some things we do believe about the future and the implications of convergence -- seven things, in fact.
1. Convergence isn't about technology, it's about experience. The ultimate reality of convergence only marginally depends on how transportation and technology schemes play out.
One way or another, there will be lots more bandwidth. We believe that the more important question is what we'll do with it. Today we are in the earliest days of convergence, with the defining services of converged media yet to be imagined, much less realized. We simply can't know today what those new forms will be. But we can know that they, not some technological standard, will ultimately define convergence.
2. Convergence isn't about the merging of lots of media into one embracing new medium, it's about the explosion of several media into lots and lots more media. It's tempting to take the metaphor of convergence literally, and to imagine a homogenization of all media into a single dominant form -- a kind of souped-up TV set. But convergence will, we believe, mean the exact opposite. There will be a splintering of media into dozens of new forms: broad and focused, in home and out, fixed and mobile.
3. Convergence isn't a merger of equals, it's a takeover. These new forms will continue to include the sorts of media to which we've become accustomed over the last few decades. In other words, the "lean back" media, like TV/cable, will continue to entertain us relatively passively. But we'll also "lean forward" into media that will offer us unprecedented involvement in and control over our experiences. Just as the radio industry concentrated on what it did well -- music and talk -- and grew steadily even after the introduction of TV, so the passive media will continue to grow in the interactive age. But just as TV in its time quickly became the main event -- the largest advertising medium, the definer of public dialogue -- so too will converged, interactive media take over center stage in the media arena.
4. Convergence isn't about telling, it's about listening, responding, enabling. At their core, what the new media bring to the party is a quantum leap in what individuals -- viewers, users, consumers -- really want: choice and control.
The winning players in the new convergence media will be those that understand successful new services will be co-created by users; the most successful of these players will be those that find ways to empower their users, who are willing to put aside the habits of decades of control in favor of becoming true partners. Convergence isn't about doing things "to" or even "for" our users; it's about doing things with them.
5. Convergence isn't about audiences, it's about individuals and communities. If we're to serve our users, we have to deal with them in ways that they want, and with the respect they deserve. At Oxygen, we know that we need to help many of the women we serve onto the Web; we'll be doing that with a family of services, cable programs and role models that will help women see what interactivity can mean to them, and how. Beyond that, we have to get out of their way.
6. Convergence isn't about selling, it's about providing. The traditional media either separate marketing messages from editorial in a "church and state" sort of way, or they link editorial to marketing (as in infomercials). The converged media demand a new approach, one in which editorial and marketing can "meet" in an open arena in service to the consumer. We call it the consumer-driven zone, or CDZ, a "place" where consumers can learn about the products and services that interest them, discuss them with suppliers, ask for what they want and purchase it.
In the CDZ there is no marketer-controlled dialogue; there is a real conversation, informed by the marketer, enabled by the media but led by the consumer. Second, in the CDZ there are only trusted, certified suppliers; the role of the media company is to do that certification. Lastly, in the CDZ the consumer is in control, period. The consumer specifies what she wants, and the winning supplier is the one that listens best and provides it. Brands matter absolutely in the CDZ and in the converged media, but only brands built "the old-fashion way," around trust and delivery.
7. Building a business for the converged world isn't a sprint, it's a marathon. For all of the talk of "Internet time" and the celebration of speed that characterizes discussions of new media, it will be years before convergence has emerged in a way that lets us understand it confidently. Unless we play in that market as it's developing, we're likely to miss it, so being active today is critical. By the same token, if a company runs this race as if the finish line is right around the corner, it's setting itself up for trouble. Oxygen's approach is to build Internet and cable businesses that are free-standing successes and that will work on their own until convergence is a clearer prospect. At the same time, we are managing our business as though it's already converged, developing Web and cable services with overlapping teams. Most fundamentally, we're doing everything we can to help our users help us co-create our services.
For some, convergence is the last stage of a transformation from old economy to new. To others, it's an economic neutron bomb so dangerous it should be banned before irreparable damage is done. At Oxygen, we believe convergence is the inexorable next step in the development of the media -- and the empowerment of consumers.
Ms. Laybourne is chairman-CEO of Oxygen Media; Mr. Wilkinson is vice chairman