With Future House, Time Warner Proves It's Learned From the Past

Exhibit Demystifies Advanced Home Cable Technology

By Published on .

Twelve years and one month ago, I stood in the crowded ballroom of the Sheraton Orlando North with about 400 others -- mostly journalists from around the
'Home to the Future,' a four-story interactive installation, has opened with great fanfare at the Time Warner Center.
'Home to the Future,' a four-story interactive installation, has opened with great fanfare at the Time Warner Center. Credit: Time Warner
world -- and watched Gerry Levin click a remote to unveil Time Warner's "electronic superhighway" (remember that phrase?).

It was, I wrote then, a "painfully orchestrated" ribbon-cutting for the Full Service Network, "a delay-plagued interactive TV network." FSN at that point was already a year behind schedule and only wired into about five Orlando homes. The problem was, in that one year, a little thing called the internet had become a very big thing. "While the internet can be accessed by millions and used to tap an endless collection of global databases," I wrote, "two-way TV trials have become victims of their own hype." And this was late 1994.

Levin acknowledged the internet was "wonderful" but also "very slow." He insisted FSN was not an experiment but a launch that would be in 4,000 Orlando-area homes by the end of '95 before a full national rollout to millions of American households.

Previous $100 million failure
Six months later, 60 interactive TV boxes had been installed, at a cost of more than $3,000 each, prompting one web rival to ridicule FSN as "the world's most expensive pizza-ordering system." Sponsors pulled out, with Chrysler even canceling a simple tour of a Time Warner Home of the Future, citing a lack of media interest. Time Warner ultimately poured more than $100 million into the project before pulling the plug in 1997.

It was impossible not to recall the FSN disaster last week as I was ushered around a private tour of Time Warner's new Home to (not "of") the Future, a four-story interactive installation on display at the Time Warner Center in New York. (It will be open for a month before going on tour.)

Our host was Ed Schlossberg, founder and principal designer for ESI Design, who conceived and constructed the installation. Ed also designed the Studio D concept for Best Buy to get women to purchase more consumer electronics.

Razzle-dazzle promo
Given the razzle-dazzle that surrounded the Time Warner installation -- Tony Bennett performed at an opening party for 1,000 people -- I couldn't help feeling underwhelmed as Ed walked Ad Age Editor Jonah Bloom and me around his creation. And I couldn't help thinking that was a good thing.

Home to the Future is a showcase of Time Warner Cable's current capabilities. It's meant to wow consumers by highlighting the services and offerings they can get today from the cable company, including high-speed online, digital phone, high-def programming and video on demand. Essentially, it's a high-tech display space filled with lots of TV screens showing TBS. There's even a nod to the digital offerings of corporate siblings such as Time Inc. and Warner Bros.

Time Warner Cable counts 13.5 million subscribers in 33 states, and many apparently don't take full advantage of the range of services it offers. Home to the Future is billed as experiential branding but can also be seen as a clever device to raise per-subscriber revenue. Good timing, too, since Time Warner Cable is about to spin off shares to the public.

Time Warner's only misstep
None of this is meant as criticism, actually. Time Warner's only misstep seems to be in trying to create too much buzz around the exhibit. But the showcase itself doesn't paint an unrealistic portrait of a "Jetsons"-like future. Instead, it keeps the focus on available offerings, which are fairly impressive on their own.

Perhaps best of all, it does something cable companies rarely do well: marketing, by demystifying technology and showing off the benefits of advanced services.

It may not be sexy. But it is smart.
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