Gates: PC will replace TV, TV will become a giant Google

Chairman Bill hopes we'll keep pushing his buttons


Back after the break - and no clicking

Reliable, subscription-style broadcasters, and businesses that depended on mass audience advertising have survived the recession in good health, while media that could be described as more "interactive", or more reliant on impulse buying decisions - such as newspapers and internet web sites - bore the brunt of ad budget cuts.

People quite stubbornly seem to like broadcasting, too. When people are offered more choice (for example, the many thousands of songs on an iPod) or more interactivity (digital TV), the more they seem to value not having to either click or choose. People love non-interactive broadcasting, so long as the programmes are good and the programmer makers reasonably representative.

Radio is enjoying a renaissance in the United Kingdom, with commercial ad spending rocketing, and the emergence of genuinely good, grassroots FM stations. The government has issued 200 low-power FM licenses for community stations, and people are embracing the opportunity with great enthusiasm. (Compare this to the lackluster adoption of community media websites, such as Skokie,Ill.). Your reporter was astonished to see so many bus passengers listening to FM radio on their mobile phones this year on the morning commute, recently.

Meanwhile, and this is even more astonishing, digital TV has become an object of widespread derision in the UK. For the first time in its history, the word "digital" has negative brand connotations. Such is the pushback against glitchy digital TV streams, full of drop outs and hiccups, and hard-to-use controls, that people are beginning to clamor for the analog signal to remain on. "Digital" now means "crap", which should give lazy marketeers some pause for thought. TV is becoming associated with the kinds of problems people associated with PCs. It's true a few programme formats lend themselves naturally to some form of interactivity: particularly live TV which invites vox pop polls or comments. But these gimmicks actually get in the way of programming with a conventional narrative pull: such as a movie, a drama or a footie match.

But Gates' belief in interactivity is almost religious. An intelligent man with a zero boredom threshold, it's no wonder he finds traditional broadcasting tedious and dull. As Gates tells the Hollywood Reporter, he hates linear assumptions.

Gates' presumption that only stupid people can enjoy non-interactive TV is widely shared amongst technology evangelists, but it isn't widely shared amongst the population at large, who simply clamor for better programs. The enthusiasm of the audeince during Jon Stewart's Crossfire appearance, where he berated the format for its idiotic theatre, shows that people want better programming, not to click more.

But in addition to thinking mass audiences are axiomatically stupid - if you got a dollar for every time a technology enthusiast berated someone "not getting it!", there wouldn't be a pensions crisis - Bill also makes a another mistake. He thinks broadcasters are stupid, too.

However, really effective broadcasters are more likely to be found blazing the trail, rather than looking to Redmond for answers. Rupert Murdoch gambled on satellites and encryption technology in the mid-1980s, at a time when Microsoft couldn't give away its GUI. And as regular readers know, BBC's research facility at Kingswood Warren continues to pioneer broadcast technologies. Dumb broadcasters who swallow the technologists' interactivity mantra do tend to do some very dumb things: ask Time Warner. Murdoch famously treated the internet with great circumspection, and he was proved right.

Gates also forgets that the major advertisers and their agencies don't want to be dependent on text-classified ads. Companies like Audi and Nike depend on big, splashy campaigns that enforce the idea of a global brand. This is obscene in its own way, but it's what they value. If we can help Bill understand it this way: if Windows was advertised as simply another text ad alongside Red Hat and a home made OS, you wouldn't be too happy.

It's doubtful whether Microsoft, or any other technology company, is in a unique position to give broadcasters something they need that they can't get by some other means cheaper. Hence the mania for "interactivity". It hasn't escaped our notice that most of the negative reaction to digital TV cites features that broadcasters have added to make the TV look like the internet. Both the broadcast lobby and the internet lobby are surely going to be disappointed if they insist on stamping on each other's domains. Good TV isn't interactive, and on effective computer networks, users aren't passive. The two can happily co-exist. TV broadcasters seem to have learned this lesson, and for their part, need to fix the programming. Meanwhile, the internet lobby would do better to fix deep and systemic problems with its own networks, lobbying to keep the platform open and useful for sharing media, if its core value isn't to disappear.

And surely a more rewarding path for Bill himself, or similarly fidgety, zero-attention span clickers, would be to take up gardening, or the flamenco guitar. ®

Related link

The Hollywood Reporter interview

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