Technology Increases Access to Variety of Media

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The outcry over televised liquor advertising reminds me that banning the commercials will certainly make a difference.

On another planet.

One might applaud today's Carrie Nations taking the regulatory ax to anything that might sully the innocence of children. But it seems obvious such efforts are futile if they are premised on the ability to single out one or two media from a pack that is rapidly converging.

Lest the network chieftains applaud too loudly, I append another cautionary note: Regulating broadcast spots for demon rum is as pointless as the TV industry's quest to quash SonicBlue, the personal video recorder company. In fact, the two vain struggles are linked. Let me explain.

Convergence and synergy
Convergence was a controversial concept long before Wired raised its profile in the Roaring '90s. The ad industry's 1980s mega-mergers were premised in part on the idea that consumers were "integrated perception units," and that marketers would benefit from unified plans that crossed media silos. Media companies conglomerated after seeing opportunity in properties that could be synergistically exploited from one medium to another. When the mega-mergees failed to match the growth of the S&P 500 -- and when the dot-com bust put the kibosh on so many media dreams -- convergence became discredited.

But technological logic has a way of defying financial logic. For several years, we early adopters have been trying to put our integrated perceptions into a single box. Music got there first: Digitized and Napstered, tunes landed by the thousands in our PCs, Nomad Jukeboxes and now our IPods. Film and video is becoming a fast follower. (Download the peer-to-peer programs Limewire or Morpheus and watch the requests for bootlegged full-motion entertainment fly across your screen.)

Hobbyists are giving way to major media, entertainment and home-electronics companies. Convergence boxes able to hold tera-bytes of digitized music, video and still pictures are trickling onto the market. The flood's not far away, rendering moot not only the distinctions between broadcast and cable but the differences between TV and PC, game shows and brochureware, advertising and e-mail. All will be readily available on your big-screen, Dolby Digital home-theater system.

Cable companies generally are impatient to bring convergence devices to market (an easy way to add Internet access revenues to their TV subscription fees, and increase the allure of next-generation pay services).

Futile to limit access
That's why trying to limit kids' access to TV liquor ads is so futile. In a world of convergence devices, how can regulating one medium ever make a difference? It's also why TV's battle to kill SonicBlue -- whose own broadband media center provides an astounding 320 hours of multimedia storage, and includes a built-in broadband port -- is so inane.

Just last week, Digeo, owned by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, said it plans to distribute such "broadband media centers." Mr. Allen also controls cable company Charter Communications. Rest assured, broadband media centers are the future of Microsoft's Xbox and Ultimate TV, and Sony's PlayStation 2.

The convergence fun is just beginning -- and it will be very hard to regulate.

Mr. Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is chief marketing officer at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

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