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MEMORY LANE: Street smarts

Fri, 11/30/2007 - 7:15pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technology writer, Englewood, Colo.

Stewart Schley

Mainstreet was upstaged
by more efficient
computer networks.

The early-1950s CBS Saturday-morning cartoon “Winky Dink and You” sometimes gets credit as the first example of interactive television programming. Kids who begged their parents sufficiently could order by mail a semi-transparent skin they could layer atop their TV sets. When the show’s animated protagonist got into a tricky spot – say, having to cross a chasm – kids were invited to draw the necessary bridge or mooring on the transparent vinyl surface, and a few seconds later Winky Dink would more or less cross over it.

That was just about as good as it got in interactive television for several decades, until a brief burst of investment and invention took place early in the 1980s. For reasons that seemed coincidental more than prescribed, southern California emerged as the closest thing interactive TV had to an epicenter.

There, tucked near beachfronts and freeways, a few adventurous enterprises tried to make a business out of transforming television from its traditional role as a content vehicle that could speak, but not respond, except for displaying a selected channel. The former publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Co., tried its hand in Los Angeles’ Orange County with a cable-delivered service called Gateway, which amalgamated a range of interactive information offerings, including the now-familiar news and weather headlines along with a hodge-podge of menu-filtered content. Cox Communications, in San Diego, lasted for several years with Indax, a similar, text-based interactive service.

By 1986 Times Mirror and Cox had shut down their so-called “videotext” operations. But a successor to the SoCal contingent was just getting started. It came from a company with only a sliver of a presence in the cable TV ecosystem: General Telephone & Electronics, or more familiarly, GTE, a sizable telephone company unaffiliated with the Bell-system offspring spat out by AT&T.

In the Orange County community of Cerritos, GTE had laid the foundation for an interactive TV service it believed could revolutionize the cable category. Mainstreet, as GTE branded it, was to be the pole upon which GTE would vault into cable’s upper echelons. The company had ambitions to be in more than 60 cable markets by 2004, and to pass roughly 7 million homes. This was in 1987, when Mainstreet was just beginning. GTE started in Cerritos, working with a partner known as Apollo Cablevision to build a high-capacity cable system that would deliver the usual portfolio of one-way video channels but also feature a range of interactive TV services.

Mainstreet was ahead of its time. Among its offerings was an oft-updated version of Grolier’s Academic American Encyclopedia that students could use for homework and research while dad waited patiently to check the market. Type in a stock symbol and press a button on a TV remote, and Mainstreet would spit out closing-bell prices. (“Your living room is like a seat on the stock exchange!” crowed an advertisement.)

There was more. Electronic games, travel information, news articles. Even classified ads. The mere specter of it gave newspaper publishers the shivers. Mainstreet flowed first over the Apollo/GTE cable network in Cerritos, and its content and the applications that powered it later were made available to the cable industry at large, with operators in California, Massachusetts and New Hampshire adding the service for a monthly fee of $9.95.

That Mainstreet is nowhere to be found today is a consequence in small part of corporate restructuring – GTE ended up shedding its slim cable holdings, and the Cerritos system now belongs to Wave Broadband. But the bigger contributor to Mainstreet’s departure, and that of several interactive TV efforts that performed similar functions, came from a massive upstaging levied by more efficient and scalable computer networks like CompUServe, America Online, and later, the public Internet itself. As Jetson-esque as some of Mainstreet’s applications seemed in 1987, the list today reads like a quaint summation of Internet 1.0. Try to get a rise out of a Gen-Y 20-something today by touting the idea of making a travel reservation or playing a video game over an interactive network. Dude, that’s so pre-YouTube.

Mainstreet and GTE correctly foretold of a world of interactive content and user-evoked transactions. Where GTE got it wrong was presuming a coaxial-connected TV set would be the vessel by which interactions occurred. The Internet’s rapid sweep across the nation’s households and PCs trumped anything Mainstreet, Times Mirror’s Gateway, Knight-Ridder’s Viewtron or Cox’s Indax could muster. They were precursors of something bigger, and even in their time, they barely made a ripple on the public consciousness. But that’s sometimes the way technology advances: the early entrants fade away, and the successors get the glory as technologies go mainstream. Or is it Main Street?

ss_edit@comcast.net

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