The Future Is Looking Too Cool


TIME – Spectator Column – June 14, 1993

The Future Is Looking Too Cool

Instant CDs! Movie premieres and Macy’s at home!
Amazing — and sterile and lonely

WHEN A CHILD of the 1950s was told that video phones and rocket packs were just around the corner, he believed all the giddy hype, desperately wanted every whiz-bang contraption, couldn’t wait for the new technological dawn . . . and then waited, and waited, year after disappointing year, making do with aerosol cheese and pocket calculators and feeling finally that those Jetsons promises might never be fulfilled.

Now that the too-good-to-be-true future of our youth is suddenly arriving, however, not everyone is thrilled. A month ago, TCI, the ubiquitous cable-TV company, announced a deal with Carolco, the foundering little movie studio, to show big-deal movies on pay-per-view television before they are released to theaters — a heretical idea that was instantly condemned by the show-business establishment, including Blockbuster Entertainment. But within days, < Blockbuster announced its own deal, with IBM, to develop a system of in-store CD manufacture under which CDs would be recorded as customers asked for them — a heretical idea that was instantly condemned by the music industry. Now Macy’s (the 135-year-old department store) has announced its deal with Don Hewitt (the 70-year-old executive producer of 60 Minutes) to create a Macy’s home-shopping channel — an imitative idea that was instantly pooh-poohed by the TV and retailing establishments.

On one level, the issue in all these cases is simple, even banal: How will the artifacts of leisure be distributed? But the outcomes of all the corporate scheming and sniping will powerfully shape the way we live our 21st century lives. The proposed Macy’s channel isn’t causing much of a ruckus since no one is seriously threatened by it, even though TV shopping is already a shockingly big business (about $2 billion in annual sales). But until TV is fully interactive and viewers can browse through any sort of merchandise they want at will, home shopping will remain a slightly creepy backwater, the pastime of losers and elderly aunts.

For movie and record companies, however, the digital-delivery danger seems real and present. Some of the show-business opposition is simple conservatism, knee-jerk opposition to the radically new. For Hollywood in particular, a key caste system would be disconcertingly upended: major motion-picture premieres on cable TV would muddle the distinction between the gods who make theatrical films and the hacks who work in television.

But the resistance isn’t merely visceral. Compared with the crapshoot of producing movies, the unglamorous business of distributing them is virtually a sure thing: for sending out a $1,400 print of Last Jurassic Action Park, studios get $1 from every ticket sold. Manufacturing and shipping CDs, a business that employs tens of thousands of people, is similarly dull and profitable. Still, the moguls aren’t Luddites. MCA Music chairman Al Teller, for instance, says MCA will have its own one-at-a-time CD-system prototype 18 months from now. And Sid Ganis, president of marketing and distribution for Sony’s Columbia Pictures, can hardly afford to be anti-high-tech. “At Sony the grand plan is combining software and hardware,” he says. “On the other hand, there is a real emotional magic to going to the movies with hundreds of other people.”

More than anything else, the showmen are worried that the pumped-up glamour and hype on which their businesses depend will leach away if audiences can pick and choose and consume in electronic solitude. “We are standing on a revolutionary threshold,” says MCA’s Teller of on-line delivery. “But I don’t believe the highest form of human existence is sitting at home in a cocoon downloading digital bits.”

Which is, in the end, the only compelling case against the new gadgetry. When it was just a matter of spending too much time watching CNN and Who’s the Boss? reruns, American couch-potato-ism was more amusing than depressing. But if the last remaining rich, secular public rituals — shopping, moviegoing, browsing in the company of human strangers — become reduced to solitary, freeze-dried experiences, we will have impoverished ourselves. The future, as it happens, will feel futuristic after all. But at least the Jetsons occasionally went out and mingled.