By Published on .

Interactivity. Certainly it's the most exciting concept to hit the American consumer in years. But I want to bring a touch of pragmatism to the table. I think we are being seduced by the hype to accept a concept that does not yet exist, and will probably never meet the grandiose expectations.

I don't get to this point in my thought process just to be bombastic. I get here because it represents the confluence of the six C's that are going to be so important in determining the future of TV: competition, confusion, Congress, coolness, crash-testing and cash.

1. Competition

Most people envision the superhighway as a smoothly paved, gradually expanding process. In reality, it is as chaotic as rush-hour on the Santa Monica Freeway and just as cutthroat.

The growth of the superhighway is not a group of individuals and companies joining hands to work toward a common goal where all parties prosper. It is competition at the highest level among some of America's richest and most powerful companies, all trying to destroy every part of the superhighway except their own lane.

Look at some of the early players who are involved: cable companies, telephone companies, computer companies and software manufacturers. Even Hollywood and Wall Street are active players.

All of these players cannot win out. The consumer just does not have the money to afford all of the options.

2. Confusion

What is the information superhighway? I don't think we've even resolved this primary issue. Some consumers think that cellular phones and CD players are the leading edge of this highway.

But it's not just the consumer who is confused. It's difficult even for the experts. George Gilder, the futurist, predicted in 1990 that the telephone companies would be the primary carrier for the information superhighway. In 1992, Mr. Gilder wrote in Forbes that the cable industry was the front-runner. By 1994, Mr. Gilder felt the computer industry would be the eventual winner.

I must admit that I am just as confused as anybody else. You see, I can't figure out who the target audience is for this superhighway. And no one seems to be addressing this key issue.

3. Congress

Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have already begun to meddle in this arena, putting restrictions on the amount of money cable operators can charge their customers.

But Congress is not stopping there. They seem ready to pass legislation that will keep the information superhighway available and affordable to everyone, not just the affluents. This would limit the kind of monies that can be charged and should dramatically slow the desired rate of expansion.

4. Coolness

For the most part, consumers have always been rather cool toward new technologies, especially if it requires them to change the way they live.

In the U.S., only about one out of four homes has a personal computer or PC. And even in PC-equipped households, the top uses of computers are for low-tech things like word processing and playing games.

In addition, we Americans are just not cocooners. We need social interaction. Eighty percent of us ate at a fast-food restaurant last month. Fifty-six percent ate at a family-style restaurant.

I believe that for every new technological innovation, one should apply these three criteria to determine success: Is it a benefit to the consumer? Will it be profitable for the supplier? Is it a product that does not require a major change in human nature?

5. Crash testing

Automobile manufacturers began to use crash-test dummies in order to get a truer read on what really happens to people when they are in a crash. They had to take this crash-testing out of the research labs and make it real. When they did that, the whole notion of passenger safety was altered.

The situation is similar for the superhighway. If you asked anyone if they would like to have myriad services at their fingertips, they'd probably all be enthusiastic. But to really know if they will subscribe to the superhighway, you'd have to do a real-life test.

6. Cash

This final C could well be the most important one. Who is going to foot the bill for this superhighway? The forecasts are that to build the superhighway it will cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

We can't really expect the consumer to pay. Consumers already resist paying more for cable, and the bills average about $35 per month.

That leaves the advertiser. All who work in the advertising business know full well that the budgets for most clients are not growing and that the halcyon days of the 1980s are not likely to return. The advertisers who make any media work are the P&Gs, the General Foods and the General Motors. They are more likely to support the mass media to sell to their mass markets.

We do know that development of interactive will not eliminate other media. As we have seen time and time again throughout history, new media have not replaced the old established media forms.

Network TV remains the primary medium of the masses. The average household spends 25 hours each week with the offerings of the three networks.

It is not logical to assume that as more programming entries come into the marketplace that the three networks will be diminished.

Think about the advantages of having a recognized brand when there's confusion in a marketplace. ABC, CBS and NBC are among the best-known brands in America today.

So where does network TV fit into the information and entertainment superhighway? I'd say in the express lane with the open road ahead.

Ms. Rosen is president-CEO of the Network Television Association.

Most Popular
In this article: