Why Web TV Is Not Viewtron Revisited

By: Steve Outing

In my last column I discussed WebTV, and the impact this new Internet-to-the-television-screen technology could have on news Web publishers in terms of having to redesign their sites. If WebTV indeed succeeds, it will bring a new audience of novice users to the Internet, thus increasing the chances for news Web publishers to actually turn their ventures into profitable enterprises. Web TV (the concept of Internet on TV, not just the company called WebTV) holds the promise of moving the Internet one step closer to having a mass audience.

But there's much skepticism about Web TV, as evidenced by a lengthy discussion in recent days on the online-news In ternet list, which is frequented by interactive publishing professionals. Much of the doubt about its likelihood of succeeding stems from a belief that reading the Internet on a television screen is such an unfulfilling experience that WebTV will flop, just as its videotex ancestors did in the 1980s.

So let's look at this a little deeper, since Web TV's success could have a major impact on newspaper Web publishing.

This is not the '80s

A frequent criticism about Web TV is that the concept was tried before in the 1980s, when media companies like Knight-Ridder and Times-Mirror invested -- and lost -- $50 million and $30 million respectively on early videotex ventures Viewtron and Gateway. These services put a set-top box on a consumer's television and created news and other content to try and create a new videotex industry.

They flopped for a variety of reasons, according to Randy Bennett, vice president of new media at the Newspaper Association of America and a staffer at Knight-Ridder's Viewtron from its launch in 1979 to its demise in 1986:

* The companies misread consumers' needs, assuming that they wanted to read information online when in fact they were more interested in chat and discussion forums (interacting with other people online). Today's Internet is far more diverse, with enough variety of content to satisfy most consumers' desire for information specifically of interest to them, and the Internet is rich in opportunities for online discussion and live chat.

* There was much less consumer awareness of online technologies when Viewtron was plying its wares, which made marketing difficult. Today, with Web URLs on television commercials and on soda cans, even non-PC owners have heard about the Internet. It's an easier sell.

* Viewtron customers complained about the access speeds -- 1200 baud in those days -- and the painfully slow drawing of graphics on the screen. In this respect, videotex of the '80s truly was ahead of its time. Only now with 33600 baud access (on the WebTV product) is it more acceptable. Still, faster access speeds are necessary for Web TV, which is the promise of cable TV companies providing super-fast access directly to a Web TV unit -- most likely reaching most U.S. homes within the next 1-2 years.

* Viewtron charged $700 for its unit; when that flopped, it offered a leasing option. Bennett thinks the WebTV price point ($325 for the hardware) is much more marketable, especially in comparison to the price of a PC. It provides a good option for non-PC-owning consumers to get on the Internet through a familiar appliance.

* Bennett notes that toward the end of Viewtron's existence, the company was working on providing access to the videotex service on computers (the Commodore 64, Apple II and IBM PCjr), rather than just on a TV set. Ironically, things are now heading in the opposite direction with products like WebTV.

Reading on a TV screen

Even if we concede that the factors that killed Viewtron are gone (or at least ameliorated) today, there's still the issue of, "Will consumers really read text on a television screen?" The WebTV units from Sony and Phillips now on sale in many U.S. stores are so new an item that we won't be able to answer that question for a few more months. WebTV isn't giving out sales figures, but retailers around the U.S. are reporting brisk sales of the units.

Several people on the online-news list who have tried out the WebTV devices report that they are pleased with the experience. Version 1.0 of WebTV does have a number of limitations which these users complained about, but the experience of reading Web pages on a TV screen isn't so bad, they report. (WebTV automatically enlarges type of Web pages, so most sites are readable even if they haven't been redesigned to accommodate TV-screen readers.)

Television sets today also tend to have larger screens than those of the early and mid '80s, and newer sets have finer resolution than older ones. While few computer users will be convinced to switch to TV as their Internet viewing medium, today -- unlike the '80s -- Web TV is a viable concept for Internet novices.

Newspaper companies today don't need to think about investing tens of millions of dollars into getting in the videotex or Internet access business. Viewtron was a content company, and it partnered with AT&T for the set-top boxes that delivered its content. KRI's rationale for going into the videotex business was a defensive one. Today's newspaper companies can concentrate on providing information to consumers, and leave the risks of creating a new Internet access industry category to companies like WebTV. This time around, the newspaper industry can sit back and be the beneficiary of the new users that Web TV companies will bring to the Internet. We as an industry should be hoping for their success.

Tribune invests in Mercury Mail

The Tribune Co. of Chicago has made a $2 million minority stake investment in Mercury Mail, a Denver-based personalized e-mail news and information service. Mercury Mail delivers ad-supported news, weather, stock, sports and entertainment to consumers via e-mail.

Bailout from AOL

Gannett's USA Weekend is pulling its online area off of America Online later this month and will concentrate on its World Wide Web site. USA Weekend had a presence on AOL for more than a year. There's some debate whether USA Weekend and other publishers on AOL, including magazine publisher The Atlantic, were pushed out because they weren't making enough money for AOL, or if they jumped ship themselves. In any event, this would seem to portend more publisher defections from the AOL proprietary service as publishers focus on their Web publishing ventures. Now that AOL has gone to a flat-rate monthly subscription fee and ended hourly surcharges to users, content providers are expected to see less usage fee revenue from their AOL areas. More defections are inevitable.

Careersite partners with Community Newspapers

Online employment company CareerSite (Ann Arbor, Michigan) has partnered with Community Newspaper Co. to create an online job listings service called JobSmart.com. Community, which owns 117 small newspapers in eastern Massachusetts, has licensed CareerSite's job-matching software to create the site. JobSmart.com works in conjunction with JobSmart, a previously operating print jobs supplement published by Community Newspapers. JobSmart.com focuses on the Boston and eastern Massachusetts job market, but is also tied in with Careersite's national database of jobs.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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