Broadband & Hollywood

emmyoscarJames R. Messenger's EMMY® for "The Taj Mahal" and Academy Award® Nomination for "OF TIME, TOMBS AND TREASURE: The Treasures of Tutankhamun."

June 7, 2002

 A White Paper for the Hollywood Film & TV Community

BROADBAND AND HOLLYWOOD

Everything you ever wanted to know
About the Information Age
But didn’t know how to ask.

By

James R. Messenger

Hollywood uses the term “New Media” to cover the multitude of opportunities that are being offered by the information technology revolution swirling around not only Hollywood but also everyone on this planet.  Something “big” is happening, but how does one get one’s arms around whatever “it” is and, more importantly, how do you make money with this new technology?

Here’s a quick way to learn just how much you know about today’s world of high technology.  Fill in the blanks:  “The Information Age is a true new age based upon __________________ and this new age is being driven forward by ________________.”

An easy test?  How precise – or vague – did you have to be just to come up with an answer? 

The point of this exercise is not to make anyone look foolish, but merely to demonstrate how a society can move forward towards disaster like the great “dot.com” failure in the Year 2000 based upon glittering generalities that provide no concrete means for practical business.

The purpose of this brief paper is to give those working in the entertainment business a highly practical understanding of Information Age technology, an idea of the opportunity the Info Age represents, and just what the expectations are that others have for Hollywood for turning the Information Age into true economic success. TOP

What is the Information Age?

While most people would point to the breakup of “Ma Bell” on 1/1/84 as the beginning of the Information Technology revolution, interestingly enough, the articulation of the theory upon which the Information Age stands has been around since 1982.  And here it is:

The Information Age is a true new age based upon the interconnection of computers via telecommunications, with these information systems operating on both a real-time and as-needed basis.

Furthermore, the primary factors driving this new age forward are convenience and user-friendliness, which, in turn, are creating user dependence. 

User dependence is what will ensure the full implementation of the technological platform now becoming the foundation for a new economy, and dependence upon information systems is what will eventually distinguish the Information Age from the Industrial Age in the same manner that reliance upon mass production manufacturing techniques distinguished the Industrial Age from Agrarian Society.

Today, that theoretical statement may appear to be nothing more than common sense – and it seems quite easy to go back and fill in the blanks above.  But things did not seem quite so obvious and simple in the midst of the great cloud of confusion surrounding the breakup of “Ma Bell” nearly 20 years ago.   Plus, that definition is also deceptively simple in the manner of another economic statement that reads “revenues – costs = profit,” something for which Nobel Prizes are awarded to economists who deal with the issues generated by that little formula.

A key factor embedded within the theory of the Information Age is the inexorable nature of a new age.  Convenience alone will keep driving implementation of this evolutionary process until it is complete, with the primary variable being speed of implementation.  So the issue before everyone, including Hollywood, is not “if” but “how.” This technological revolution is now at a point that it will not go away, so we must learn how to harness this fundamental technological/economic change.

The greatest hurdle to the above theory of the Information Age was the fact that at the time it was articulated, every telephone network in the world was analog in nature, and the world’s networks had to be completely rebuilt on the basis of digital – computer – technology.  That meant “throwing away” over 100 years investment in analog networks.  Not an easy thing to do.  But it has been done.

The way communications networks implement technology is to start at the core of networks and then build closer and closer to customers.  Right now the communications service providers of the world have completed the building process to where they are approaching the curb near you with their digital technology.  Unfortunately, the “last mile” is the hardest part, but it will happen and the great opportunity of the Information Age will arrive at last. TOP

So if this “great opportunity” is here, why did the “dot.coms” fail?

The “go-go” days of the “dot.coms” were certainly exciting and heady.  The explosion of creativity and the number of businesses sketched out on a napkin are legendary.  And many of the ideas that were stimulated should be held onto, because they may well prove highly profitable in the future.  But they won’t right now.

The great defect in the thinking of the “dot.com” era is that – as sketched out above – there happens to be a very logical pattern as to how communications networks get built, and just a glance at the state of network development at the time of the “dot.com” boom should have told all involved that the necessary network infrastructure, while getting close, was not – and still is not – fully in place to make the “dot.coms” as profitable as everyone anticipated.

The “dot.coms” were primarily software companies and were – to use communications business jargon – “data heavy.”  That meant huge amounts of information would have to flow between online companies and customers to sell and provide the services offered.  And, of course, consumers, who serve as the primary economic engine of our Capitalist society, would serve as just about the most important target customers.

The great boom in the “dot.com” era tripped, and tripped very badly, as investors know.  But what most still don’t understand is that the “dot.coms” tripped over two little copper wires that comprise the typical phone line installed in most homes and businesses to connect customers to networks.  The “twisted copper pair” of wires (one for incoming voice and one for voice going back to the caller) used by almost all telephone companies for primary access to their customers harks back to the days of traditional analog telephone networks and were neither intended nor designed to handle data, only voice conversations.  And this “twisted copper pair” is still currently “all there is” in millions upon millions of homes and businesses throughout America and the world. 

What the “dot.coms” required for success was the communications equivalent of an oil or natural gas pipeline to their customers that could handle large amounts of data – what is now called “broadband.”  What they got instead were circuits equivalent in size to a couple of cocktail straws.  So the “dot.coms” – regardless of the brilliance of the ideas behind many of those companies – hit a logjam resting right at their customers’ premises which they could not and, in most cases, still cannot get past. 

It is also a fact of life – as most in Hollywood have experienced at one time or other with distribution – that when one cannot reach his or her customers, there’s little chance that anything can or will be sold.  The result is that most “dot.coms” went down to their ruin. 

This explains clearly why there is a new focus on “broadband” – large capacity, high-speed – communications, which is precisely the next step necessary in the continuing evolution of the Information Age.  The question under discussion is how to rapidly accomplish the move to broadband as a universal communications standard, especially in today’s economic environment. TOP

What does “broadband” mean and why is it important?

As indicated above, broadband really amounts to a capability to transmit huge amounts of data to and from computers.  But another concept is equally important for broadband – transmissions have to happen quickly.  Human beings don’t like to wait long periods or else they tend to lose interest in whatever they’re doing, so this aspect of human nature can have a real economic impact, particularly when one is trying to sell something. 

As a result, optical fiber tends to be the preferred transmission “superhighway” for broadband because fiber has the capability of transmitting virtually unlimited amounts of information quite literally at the speed of light.  This means that in the long run, because of the speed of light, when the full Information Age technology infrastructure is in place, information access will be instantaneous no matter where one is in the world – one very good reason/benefit for speeding up the implementation of universal broadband capability. 

Broadband communications can also be sent via wireless systems, and wireless networks are being rebuilt to take advantage of this important opportunity.  The only drawback is that wireless broadband requires an enormous amount of radio spectrum, and unless some new technology appears that can make greater use of the fixed amount of spectrum that exists (and this probably will occur, given the rapid evolution of communications today), there may one day be a limit on the number of simultaneous wireless broadband users, though the potential for wireless broadband is simply enormous and also quite exciting in its possibilities. TOP

Why would anyone need broadband? 

Broadband offers the opportunity for applications and services that are simply beyond our current imagining.  For instance, “Telemedicine” is a tool that might save lives for those living in remote areas.  Movies that enable the viewer to change the ending or the very story line could become a new form of entertainment. Universities and colleges could turn into global educational institutions.  The “book” could become something new that incorporates text, animation, live action video, interactive training, links to primary sources, etc.  The possibilities boggle one’s mind.

But as one practical example that would affect users immediately – and very understandable to everyone in Hollywood – broadband is not only necessary, but also essential if the use of video in information systems is to become the norm. 

That’s because video requires the transmission of colossal amounts of information to create the 30 pictures a second necessary to match broadcast TV quality, a standard that must be matched to meet customer expectations, i.e. to provide what people are used to seeing now on TV or cable.  As those who have waited – and waited – and waited for video clips to download to their computers using today’s technologies understand, only broadband systems can transmit that much information quickly. 

And if one will consider that video commercials are essential to modern commerce, one can also understand rather quickly the importance of this use of broadband for the Information Age to succeed.  Also, other uses such as video-on-demand, etc., will all depend upon broadband capability.

The new, and many-as-yet-undreamed-of applications – in entertainment, in education, in business, in medicine, etc. – that will appear from the entrepreneurial “dot.com” mentality will require huge data flow for these large, super-sophisticated computer programs to operate, otherwise the offerings will remain fairly limited – as they are today – when forced to match whatever transmission technology is available.

Aye, so there’s the rub!  Matter of fact, it is.  For the Information Age to reach full fruition and to become the operating platform for a viable new economy, one providing instantaneous access to information and communications anywhere, broadband capabilities will be essential to achieve as the standard format for operation. TOP 

DSL and cable broadband to the (temporary) rescue   

Actually, the technological solution for creating a new and highly prosperous future based upon the Information Age technology and economy already exists.  It’s called fiber optic cable.  As observed before, these hair thin strands of glass have the capability of transmitting nearly unlimited amounts of information at the speed of light through the pulsing of laser beams. 

Unfortunately, most homes and businesses – many millions, in fact – are not wired with optical fiber, but are still “stuck” with the archaic twisted copper pair wiring, which means a truly massive rewiring effort has to take place. 

Because of the magnitude of the implementation job that will have to happen to “finish” the Information Age infrastructure, interim solutions have been developed to provide “broadband” capabilities now that also buy service providers time to manage the massive new technology installation that will need to take place to create a permanent technology base.  Customers, in fact, can go ahead and move to the next step of communications speed and development and to utilize broadband information flow through these solutions. 

One such broadband solution is “cable broadband.” This solution uses cable modems typically connected with cable TV coaxial wiring to bypass the twisted copper pair problem. Cable modems have had a fair degree of success in moving customers to the next level of communications, but this technology also depends upon whether a customer subscribes to cable TV and whether the application is offered.

Another solution being offered is DSL – Digital Subscriber Line – Service a technology now being widely promoted and used by local telephone companies (and other DSL service vendors) to dramatically increase the speed of access to homes.  DSL does this through the use of software that can “cram” large quantities of data into the already existing twisted copper pair connecting most homes to their local phone company.  DSL also enables users to “always be online” to the Internet, while at the same time providing a telephone line by “splitting” off some of the capacity provided.  This dual access enables customers to both use the phone and to surf the Internet simultaneously where, previously, using older technology customers could have done one or the other, but not both, unless they had a second phone line.

Some problems have been encountered in rolling out DSL in the form of service availability (one must be within a certain geographic distance of a serving office) and with initial installation problems.  There has also been a fair amount of resistance to DSL pricing plans.  Today, the installation issues appear to be much improved.  But the cost issues are still possibly causing slower-than-desired implementation rates for DSL broadband.

Even though customers would perhaps like to get DSL high-speed access, it is the fact that DSL charges typically do not include the cost of the phone line, but are simply new charges imposed on top of what customers are already paying for phone service that is making customers look closely at this buying decision, especially in today’s economy. 

The result is that in terms of cost-to-benefit, especially when DSL service is usually about twice the price of local phone service, there often does not seem to be a large enough benefit perceived by many customers to justify the price of the service.  This is compounded by the fact that most telephone modems today provide more than sufficient speed for people “surfing” the Internet as it currently exists and viewing available applications. 

What seems to be lacking is that customers are still seeking to understand the real benefits of broadband technology.  Just what is it they will be getting for their money besides faster access to the Internet?  Is this a short-term gimmick or a new long-term network philosophy?  Is broadband part of a vision for moving into the new economic opportunities of the Information Age that will also bring benefits to customers or just another service to increase revenues for a communications service provider?  How committed is Hollywood and the entertainment industry towards supplying this new market?  Providing answers to those questions can help tell the full benefits story. TOP

Hello!  Hollywood!  Entertainment business!  Are you listening? This is where you come in!

The “Catch-22” of broadband is that until enough customers make the switch to broadband communications, there won’t be a sufficiently large group of people to make the introduction of new broadband types of applications economically feasible  (as in “profitable”) and development will stagnate.  And from the customer perspective, until there are enough useful applications using broadband to require customers to make the move to a broadband environment, why should customers waste their money on something they perceive to be of small value (or at least of less value than what they would be charged)?

And this is particularly significant since the application of broadband as the primary communications service standard is an essential pivot point for completion of the Information Age technology infrastructure, the mechanism that will enable the economic benefits of the evolving Information Age. TOP 

What communications service providers expect/hope for from the entertainment business.

As many attempts at combining the interests of entertainment and communications in business relationships as the means to seize this new opportunity have proven, there seems to be an oil and water difference between the two.  And this difference will probably remain.

Why?  Because the communications business is engineering (translate that into “control”) driven.  Very rigid bureaucracies exist within communications companies – and this is necessary  in order to maintain quality control over communications networks.  Any loosening of the reins can lead to a failure in service.  And that’s simply not acceptable when people depend upon communications for their safety, income, etc.  There’s a reason for the corporate culture that’s evolved.

Creative talent, while fascinating to communications company personnel – usually seen in something like advertising – is also terrifying because creative people so often seem completely out of control and uncontrollable.  So that kind of ability has traditionally been kept outside the boundaries of such companies and hired on an as-needed basis.

The counter side to this is that few creative solutions have ever arisen within engineering-based communications services enterprises, since people with creative mindsets are almost never hired within.  For instance, toll-free (“800”) calling service was originally conceived of as a “new means” for making collect calls.  It wasn’t until the concept arose that toll-free services were a way for people to make “free” calls rather than “collect” calls that the service exploded and became a telecommunications marketing phenomenon now responsible for about 40 percent of all telephone traffic.  That difference in perspective tells the whole story. TOP

Vive la Difference!

In short, there are certainly at least two different kinds of work cultures involved in the evolution of the Information Age, each valid in its own sphere, and each providing a different opportunity.  Communications services providers have their role of building and managing communications networks.

The responsibility that’s been handed to Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment business is the expectation that the creative pool the industry possesses will find a way to “leapfrog” the problem of broadband implementation and create those kinds of entertainment services that will prove “killer applications” in getting people on board what I call the “Broadband Expressä”.   If the entertainment business will do its part to help enable broadband technology implementation, the Information Age can be completed and economic progress can begin again. 

For the entertainment business, that means understanding the technology in its current state of development and creating applications appropriate to each new phase of technology implementation, as well as learning how to think about writing and production in revolutionary new terms in order to develop the advanced entertainment services of the future. 

The traditional Industrial Age production model that now sits at the core of Hollywood and the entertainment business must be reconsidered in a whole new light if this transformation is to be successful and the financial benefits reaped. TOP

Have PBS/WGBH TV Boston discovered the solution?

As with any “sales and marketing” effort, it’s the benefits from a product or service that ultimately make the difference for users.  Can this be done simply and effectively?  Judging by the national Public Broadcasting Service/WGBH web site for the TV mini-series “Commanding Heights,” it possibly can.  (See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/)   

By offering two distinct versions of this web site – one that’s enhanced with broadband capabilities not accessible to lowband users – not only is curiosity raised, but also one gets the distinct impression that one is “missing out” on additional features and information by not having access via broadband. 

While it takes additional effort and expense up front to offer two formats, the clear differentiation of the broadband enhancement will drive users towards it, speeding the implementation of broadband until “twin sites” are no longer necessary.

Note how the two offerings read:

Which would you prefer to use?  Does this characterization perhaps even give the distinct impression that low bandwidth is already a “dinosaur”?

And it has also proven a truth in the evolution of technology that once one moves to a more convenient technology, one loathes even the idea of going back.  For instance, does any writer working today really want to return to a typewriter? TOP 

The bottom line

After all is said and done, the core fact remains that unless some “killer” application surfaces to change the landscape of broadband that will make it a universal “necessity,” some form of creative thinking like the above surely needs to be applied to help customers understand the value of what they are paying for when it comes to DSL and cable modem broadband access, with the same holding true for other broadband access technologies when these become available. 

The communications industry is looking squarely to Hollywood and the entertainment business as a key – if not the key – to making that future happen.  Can the talent and ideas be unleashed that will help accomplish that?  Or will the disappointment of early large returns rule the day? TOP

Going back to basics to start the discussion can help yield the needed answers

By starting with the essential technological/economic theory of the Information Age and extrapolating out from that model through the use of logic, it is possible to see the current stage of development of today’s communications systems, tools and appropriate customer services. 

Such an analysis also shows what needs to be done to complete the technology infrastructure that will serve as the foundation for a new world economy, one so powerful in its potential effect that it holds the promise of a positive new future for the entire planet – and, possibly, might even serve to stimulate a global Renaissance as a result of all the innovative thinking and creativity. 

Such an analysis also demonstrates the integral nature of the creative community represented by Hollywood and the whole entertainment business in moving across the final technology hurdle in getting to the new economic prosperity the Information Age will provide.

Plus, understanding that necessary evolution can help businesses learn how to approach customers in order to stimulate the necessary move to broadband communications so that all involved can come to depend upon this new broadband network infrastructure for use in both one’s livelihood and in one’s personal life for entertainment and other purposes. 

Pursuing the development of broadband through this kind of rational analysis and discussion, all the stakeholders will come to understand how to move ahead in a progressive fashion in their particular sphere. And the combined effect of those individual efforts driving forward behind a common vision – one designed for moving aggressively and positively into the Information Age – should help stimulate the economy as a whole towards returning to positive growth.

In any case, the future is in our hands and it’s up to us to either plan our way into that future or to let the Information Age move forward on its own accord, in which case others will more than likely take the lead.

 

JAMES R. MESSENGER is an Emmy® winner and two-time Academy Award® nominee who is returning to the film industry as a screenwriter after a nearly 20-year detour as an expert on the Information Age, teaching this knowledge to the world’s business, political and educational leadership as head of AT&T’s premier executive visitor center at the AT&T Worldwide Intelligent Network Management Center in Bedminster, N.J.

Messenger participated in many technological firsts, such as serving as a producer and director of the first intercity TV broadcast via laser beam over fiber optic cable; executive producing the first coast-to-coast high definition TV broadcast demonstration featuring a live joint concert with David Crosby in Los Angeles and Graham Nash in Atlanta; and being the on-camera talent for some of the world’s first live global video webcasts.

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“Broadband and Hollywood” issued June 7, 2002.

Copyright © 2002 by James R. Messenger.  All rights reserved