Hollywood Lays an Egg

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 March 1998

Gathered together beneath the chandeliers of the Beverly Hilton’s main ballroom last week, Hollywood’s best and brightest (dressed, anyway) had paid about $1500 each to rub elbows with the interactive media makers who would soon, they feared, replace them. By getting “on board” instead of “run over,” the hopeful executives sought to “dive in” and “get connected.”

Futurist Paul Saffo and Snowcrash novelist Neal Stephenson mixed with the likes of Hollywood mega-agent Jeff Berg and American Film Institute chair Jean Furstenburg. Meanwhile, a demonstration floor crowded with the latest technology from Compaq Computers and other Silicon Valley behemoths provided a plush-carpeted platform for anxious sales reps seeking to hook the big contracts that a digital Hollywood would surely spawn.

The purpose of this particular conference – one of over 400 such “new media” gatherings occurring in the United States every year – was to orient the entertainment industry to the promise and rewards of networking technology. Hovering somewhere between Web TV and movies-on-demand, the consensus of this group was that there was money to be made on the Internet – most probably by taking the content and talent they already owned and repackaging it for the online environment. Conversely, those who chose to ignore the coming digital revolution knew they would only suffer the slow, certain death of obsolescence.

I had the distinct but dubious pleasure of addressing this conference, suitably entitled “Networked Entertainment World.” If only I hadn’t been asked to speak first, I may not have felt so compelled to dash their hopes. “Networked entertainment is an oxymoron,” I proclaimed. Indeed, entertainment literally means “to hold within,” while networking is to branch out. A studio executive equated this argument with the anti-technology rhetoric of the Unabomber. Little did he realize that he was the one turning back the clock by insisting that the Internet reduce itself to just another content delivery system.

The rush to converge the Internet (a communications medium) with television (a programming medium) is ill-founded and ill-fated. TV is TV and the Net is the Net. Never the twain shall meet. I don’t want to watch TV at my desk, and I don’t want to send email from the couch. TV could be considered a “yin” experience – a passive acceptance of entertainment programming. The Internet is a “yang” experience, where we sit at our desks and type out our thoughts and feelings. Even when we use the Internet to make a purchase, the sensation is that of moving out through the networks and procuring objects – not passively being presented with items as on a television home shopping channel.

The power of the Internet is its ability to foster communication between people – networking. It’s not the content that makes networking so special and the Internet so engaging – it’s the living human beings.

Likewise, TV is fine just the way it is. No matter how much we all complain about the quality of today’s programs, after a long day of sitting at the computer most of us would prefer to shut it off and then collapse on the couch for an evening of gentle meditation on Cracker’s latest addiction. We use the remote control to escape bad programs – not to enhance our viewing pleasure. The object of the game is to find something good and toss the remote aside. A “Web TV” interface might allow us to choose a movie from a menu rather than going to the store, but that’s hardly “networked entertainment.” It’s just an electronic TV listing.

If networking is about contact, and entertainment is about content, then how can the two be combined? So far, the best examples of networked entertainment I’ve seen are interactive gaming sites. Players of computer games like Doom or Myth can log onto networks and play with or against one another instead of the machine. Most of these sites allow players to chat with one another simultaneous to the action. The appearances by famous guests in America Online “auditoriums” also provide entertaining group experiences for those who participate. Although the guest celebrity could be seen as the “content,” the potential for live interaction with him or one’s fellows in the stalls provides the networked context.

If Hollywood hopes to venture into networked entertainment, its developers must think of themselves more as the hosts of parties than the providers of content. Rather than replacing our already-thriving interaction with the deadmatter otherwise known as “film libraries,” they will have to come up with new, creative ways to stage more of the “be-ins” that give the Internet its character.

Until they do, I’ll look for my entertainment on the tube.