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Waiting to Exhale

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Still, maybe she gets over her distribution hurdles. With her current capital (she has raised hundreds of millions, and plans in the near future to raise hundreds of millions more) and, she undoubtedly figures, a big IPO, she can perhaps create, over time, some genuine, as she describes it, grassroots demand with something like an I-want-my-Oxygen Media marketing push across the nation. But even if you could engineer a successful cable launch -- call it, even, the last successful cable launch in history -- you might still be in big trouble. Because what has caught her, too, like wind shear, is a sudden, widespread sense of foreboding about the mutant nature of third-gen TV (that is, the uncharted world after network television, which was its first gen, and cable, its second) that she was supposed to embody.

Third-generation TV from the industry's perspective, and Laybourne's, too, is broadly about what is called convergence ("the queen of convergence," The Industry Standard called Laybourne) -- the power of TV and the power of the Internet are supposed to come together ("e-tailing off the back end," people say). In Laybourne's version, there is a cable station and related Websites and certain screen real estate (the bottom 12 percent of the screen) devoted to cross-marketing. She proposes, too, to somehow relate online discussions to the television shows.

There is obviously an enormous amount riding on the third generation of TV. In some sense, it is the dream upon which the Internet becomes profitable, and upon which television itself survives as a viable advertising and marketing medium.

But the nightmarish aspects of this are becoming increasingly clear as well. It's sort of the Blair Witch factor, lately called the Voyeur TV wave -- and it confounds both the content and the distribution sides. Indeed, the rush to program voyeur stuff (Big Brother is a hit European show coming to U.S. television that films twentysomethings living together in a house equipped with many cameras, which in turn mimics various Internet versions of this premise, which in turn mimic MTV's The Real World) on network and cable stations is one of those become-the-instrument-of-your-own-demise moments.

On the way up from Oxygen's ad-agency-hip offices, I stopped in at BNNtv.com, a radically less self-conscious little shop that is busily creating what it thinks will be 200 or 300 or 400 vertical channels (that is, the cat channel, the dating channel, the sex-offenders-talk-back channel, the skateboarding channel, or, for that matter, the makeup channel, along with channels carrying the brands of niche magazines), which will be programmed with what is called user-created video -- i.e., no-cost video.

Now, I have heard all of the objections -- I have made them myself: how we need editors, professional storytellers, respected reporters. I was at a dinner party the other night with an on-air network guy who kept talking about narrative discipline. But we are all wrong. Trust me.

At BNNtv, what they are doing is not just serving up amateur video (although amateur video no longer looks all that amateur) but editing this flood of video into a highly economical as well as compelling (if undisciplined) narrative (although this may be overstating the power of, if not the interest in, skateboard tricks).

The point is that digital video cameras, at 1,000 bucks or so, are one of the fast-selling consumer electronic items, and as good as anything a network news team carries around. Add to that editing software that does what it used to take a big investment in Avid equipment to do. Add to that the speed at which broadband (AOL Time Warner may be the breach in the Maginot Line of conventional TV) is coming. Which means that the effect the Web has had on print -- a slow-motion, almost balletic transformation of the publishing industry -- is about to happen to television. John Malone's 500-station dial becomes something more like a 500,000-station dial. Or, really, such distinctions become meaningless -- rather, we will be awash in video, personal, idiosyncratic, voyeuristic, weirdly compelling video that further divides and batters television's audience.

Oxygen has a talk problem. when you announce your arrival as loudly as possible -- when such hyperbole becomes a vital element of your business plan -- and if you then fail to deliver on the expectations, the crowd turns against you. The Talk phenomenon has another aspect, too, which is that when you spend an incredible amount of money on what you know, or on what your career has been about, whether you're Tina Brown or Gerry Laybourne, whether it is a monthly general-interest magazine or a content-rich cable channel, if, through no fault of your own, that thing that you do becomes suddenly, evidently, hopelessly old, you're seriously screwed.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com.


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