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MEMORY LANE: Fade in

Wed, 04/30/2008 - 8:15pm
Stewart Schley, Media & technology writer, Englewood, Colo.

The formative elements of an interactive TV future
imagined by Time Warner are very much an everyday realityl

The founder and former CEO of Warner Communications Inc., Steve Ross, used to enjoy hobnobbing with celebrities who appeared in the films and TV shows his company produced. Stories of Ross rubbing shoulders with musicians, actors and producers as they whisked coast to coast aboard Warner’s corporate jet were common during the heyday of the former parking-lot executive turned media mogul.

Stewart SchleyBut behind the celebrity surface, Ross was also complicit – even a key instigator – in one of the cable industry’s seminal technological experiments.

It was the Full Service Network, the audacious, ahead-of-its time interactive television deployment staged by Time Warner Communications in an Orlando, Fla., suburb in 1994. (By then, Ross’ Warner Communications had merged with Time Inc., creating the world’s largest media company.)

Although the FSN, as it came to be known, was largely a technology staging ground that was miles removed from the entertainment locus Ross adored, it might never have been launched without a spur-of-the-moment decision from the silver-haired executive.

The moment came during a presentation to Time Warner executives at the company’s Manhattan headquarters. As recounted in a Cable Center oral history by Jim Chiddix, the former chief technology officer of Time Warner’s cable division, Ross snapped to attention as Chiddix talked about some of the seemingly futuristic technologies being developed by computer and software companies.

Ross, looking for investors for the goliath Time Warner, had recruited Chiddix to help understand the potential investment appeal of Time Warner to a company like Japan’s Toshiba.

“I was the guy who got up and sort of gave the technology story, and we wererehearsing for one of these big pitches up in the board room at the Time Warner building, the old Warner Bros. boardroom,” Chiddix told The Cable Center in a 2000 interview.

“My dry run was the story of how fiber was going to transform, was transforming, cable into something very different, a communications network with the potential for interactivity and the ability to … transmit 1,000 megahertz of spectrum to our customers, and it was a wonderful story.”

As Chiddix, an articulate and reasoned technology advocate, went on, Ross listened carefully. “Steve was the same guy who’d launched Qube, he loved new technologies, and he began really paying attention to what I was saying and then he stopped me and said, ‘Now, let me get this straight. You mean this technology exists today? This fiber stuff? You could really do this and deliver a gigahertz of services?’ And I said, ‘Well, the technologies exist.’ He said, ‘Well, by George, we’re going to do this. You go out and build this in one of our cable systems.’ And then he said the fateful words, ‘Don’t worry about the money.’ I could see [Time Warner Cable CEO] Joe Collins next to me sort of turning pale because he knew that giving a blank check to an engineer was a very bad idea potentially.”

And so it was determined, there in the old Warner Bros. boardroom where movies had been green-lighted and corporate strategies pondered, that Time Warner’s cable group would embark on one of the grand technology trials in cable’s history.

To be sure, the FSN took its share of arrows. Overcome with enthusiasm over the possibility of new technologies including on-demand delivery of television and interactive commerce, some of the executives assigned to the project exaggerated its near-term potential. The FSN was an expensive incubation laboratory that allowed Time Warner to cobble together an assortment of astounding, but expensive, gadgets and technologies. But at the time, there was nothing approaching affordability or scale for the collection of digital set-top devices, video servers and optical fiber networks Time Warner had assembled. Once the business press began to realize just how wide the gap between invention and market reality was, the FSN was roundly and publicly criticized as a corporate folly.

“From a PR standpoint it was kind of a disaster and even though I truly believe it had great value, we did not handle it well. We did not manage expectations,” Chiddix said in the oral history.

Even so, around 15 years later, the formative elements of an interactive TV future imagined by Time Warner are very much an everyday reality. Building on the work of Chiddix and his FSN colleagues, the cable industry now routinely serves up millions of video-on-demand sessions annually. Many of them are devoted to movies, and it’s easy to believe Steve Ross, who died in 1992, would have appreciated that fact.

ss_edit@comcast.net

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