After re-reading Ken Auletta's relentlessly sycophantic New Yorker profile of Barry Diller, one question continues to nag: Could this man possibly be as stupid as Auletta portrays him?
Now Diller may indeed have found a brilliant future investing in the interactive guts of the QVC home shopping network, but you would never know that from this textual narrowcast of media cliches. From the opening paean to his PowerBook to the tales of pilgrimages to multimedia Meccas like Apple and Microsoft, Auletta's Diller comes off as a man with less a golden gut than a silicon spleen. He is a genuine techno-twit whose grasp of new media betrays a mindset that wildly misunderstands what made him successful in the first place.
The man who practically invented the 'movie of the week' and built the Fox Network from scratch honestly believes that technology is the key. According to the 'Annals of Communication' article by Auletta, '(Diller) thinks that QVC's full shopping potential won't be tapped until it becomes truly interactive.
As Diller envisions it, the customer will say, 'I want a raincoat. Instantly! I want an umbrella,' and it will figure out the cheapest ones and deliver them to the door. He predicts, 'Three years from now, you'll say I want shoes. You'll press a button and see yourself in various shoes on the screen.' From their homes, he says, consumers will be able to roam the aisles of Bloomingdale's; avoid the last-minute Christmas rush by calling up a special selection of gifts for the 'special person,' choosing one, and having it delivered the next day; find a hotel room in the Caribbean, inspect its rooms and amenities on the TV screen, and then press a button to make a reservation.'
All this from the fellow who gave us The Simpsons? Say it ain't so! This is precisely the sort of vision a Barry Diller parodies, not one he propagandizes and entrepreneurs.
As Diller well knows, The Simpsons didn't succeed because the Fox folks did brilliant jobs of exploiting animation technology. The show succeeded because Bart et al. were - within the constraints of the medium - dysfunctionally compelling characters. New media technology isn't about 'digital compression' or 'interactivity' - it's about creating new contexts for new characters. That's why Nintendo still makes more money than Microsoft and QVC put together. The video-games giant doesn't just sell interactivity. It sells the characters of Mario and Street Fighters. It uses technology to create new contexts for both interaction and character.
Indeed, as cheesy as it looks, shopping channels like QVC intuitively recognize this. That's why they have such perky hostesses and encourage viewer call-ins. The feeling is as much talk radio as it is televised flea market. The goal isn't just to structure human/television interaction, it's to project an environment that people can dip into for a moment or float in for hours. That's not broadcasting or narrowcasting. It's something that nobody yet understands. Trust me - technology is not the key to understanding.
The issue is no longer programming for television or computer. It's creating characters and experiences. The challenge is crafting the next generation of media formats and genres - not figuring out how to replicate the psuedo-intimacy of a Bloomingdale's aisle on your high-definition television set.
As clever as Diller and his new hirelings are, they will be lucky to come up with an interactive innovation as seductively brilliant as the Home Shopping Network's countdown clock, which warns viewers they only have a few moments left to buy before that intriguing little bauble is gone forever from their screens. Creating the characters and contexts that create that sense of urgency to pick up that phone or tap that key or touch that button is what the medium is now about. Diller has to believe this or he has no hope of transforming television as we know it.
Lord knows what The Simpsons of QVC will look like. Or what the Home Shopping counterpart to Studs should be. Or if this genre can generate its own proprietary Howard Sterns or Rush Limbaughs. I only know that these are the issues that will determine the future success of Diller's QVC - not pea-brained projections about the coming uber-convergence of cable, telephone and computer companies. Barry Diller doesn't need to care if Microsoft's Bill Gates owns TCI's John Malone - or vice versa. The New Yorker's attempt to paint Diller as a techno-visionary is thus completely misleading for anybody who really wants insights into tommorrow. With hagiographers like Auletta, who needs muckrakers?
Please fax comments to Michael Schrage at 212-536-1416.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)