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CYBERCULTURE | THE SCENE / LAS VEGAS

Cultures Clash Over Onset of Digital TV

April 13, 1998|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eddie Fritts looked out at thousands of broadcast executives and heralded "the birth of the digital era." He looked like he really wanted to believe it.

"After years of talking and planning, digital is really here," Fritts, president and chief executive of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, said in a slick speech delivered in top TV broadcaster form at the trade group's annual conference here last week. "The countdown is on to November," when the networks must begin broadcasting digital signals to the country's 10 largest markets.

As if to prove the point, NAB--as the group is known--invited Apple Computer co-founder and interim Chief Executive Steve Jobs to deliver the keynote address. So, into an auditorium packed with broadcast execs in stylish suits, shiny ties and polished shoes walked Jobs, wearing a black T-shirt and a well-worn pair of Levis.

That was just the beginning of the culture clash between the worlds of entertainment and technology at NAB98.

The onset of digital television, including high-definition TV, brought the two groups together. But the techies often found their enthusiastic speeches about the convergence of computers, television and the Internet falling on deaf--or at the very least uninterested--ears.

Jobs acknowledged the broadcasters' apathy for digital TV right off: "I know a lot of you wish it would go away, but we have to talk about it because it's not going to go away." Then he made a move to level the playing field by declaring: "The computer industry knows nothing about entertainment, and much of the entertainment industry is not exactly computer literate either."

Although Jobs' role in creating Pixar Animation Studios means he's no stranger to Hollywood, he displayed a surprising lack of entertainment savvy. In a presentation much more appropriate for Comdex, Jobs launched a glorified product demo of Apple's multimedia player QuickTime. He widened the divide even further by yielding the floor to Peter Hoddie, Apple's chief QuickTime architect who--with his long hair parted straight down the middle--looked like a computer nerd straight out of Central Casting.

The presentations of other high-tech execs often degenerated into lengthy demonstrations as well, causing many eyes to glaze over. Microsoft's Craig Mundie, senior vice president of the company's consumer platform division, showed off WebTV, the Internet browsing service customers can access through their television sets. Representatives from WebTV competitors WorldGate Communications, Interactive Channel and others also cooled audience interest in their services with long PowerPoint presentations.

Ron Whittier, vice president of Intel's content group, was a little more hip to his audience, emphasizing the practical over the technical. He peppered his demos with examples from MTV and the hit movie "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery." He even wore a double-breasted navy blazer.

The tech team evangelized about the new business opportunities that await them once digital television paves the way for programs to be interactive like World Wide Web pages. Broadcasters could hook sports viewers by allowing them to access a baseball player's stats while he's at the plate, and charge advertisers more by equipping their commercials with electronic commerce capabilities, they said.

"As you look forward to digital TV, there are new opportunities for content creation and advertising," Mundie said.

Even FCC Chairman William Kennard lauded the digital future to a standing-room-only crowd of skeptical broadcasters. Kennard predicted the conversion would create more choices for consumers, while the broadcasters seemed more interested in how much it would cost them to outfit their studios with new digital equipment.

"Yesterday, I toured the convention hall and imagined myself sitting in front of my digital TV of the future, with millions of bits streaming through," said Kennard, whose first job out of Yale Law School was with NAB. "We have to get this spectrum working for the American public. If you go out on the convention floor, you'll see the excitement that's bubbling about digital."

But for the most part, the broadcasters remained unconvinced.

"What guarantee do any of you gentlemen have that there's a groundswell for people to put more stuff on top of their TVs?" NBC news anchor Brian Williams asked as he moderated a panel discussion with senior executives from ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC.

None of the panelists had a convincing response.

Karen Kaplan can be reached at karen.kaplan@latimes.com

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