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Tuesday, 18 September, 2001, 11:05 GMT 12:05 UK
A glimpse of the digital future
Nick Higham
Media correspondent Nick Higham overcomes his scepticism to find wisdom in a cyber guru's address on the digital future.

The Royal Television Society's convention is a high-powered but occasionally stuffy affair attended by the leaders of the British television industry.

This year's was a lacklustre occasion.

It was overshadowed by events in America, by a miserable performance by the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell and by the non-appearance of the star turns.

Rupert Murdoch and his friend and occasional business partner John Malone were trapped by events in the US.

The hunter becomes the hunted; the consumer does the hunting

Dan Tapscott

Then at the start of the second day Don Tapscott, billed as a "cyber guru", came on.

The heart sank. That word guru boded ill.

What smoke and mirrors, what visionary generalisations with little real substance to them, would we be forced to listen to?

Yet Tapscott turned out not to be a wild-eyed seer or Jeremiah but a speaker of wit and insight, who managed to be both convincing, stimulating and a little frightening.

If the arrival of digital technology is creating a paradigm shift which affects us all, you could do a lot worse than get Tapscott to explain what it all means.

After all, he wrote the book on the subject (Paradigm Shift: the New Promise of Information Technology, 1993).

Much of what he said was familiar.

Tomorrow's adults belong to a "digital generation".

They have grown up with computer games and chatrooms and interactivity and are no longer satisfied with old-fashioned linear television.

Technological developments will soon bring ubiquitous broadband access, with so much data available to consumers that old models for communications, like broadcasting, will be obsolete.

If there are still record stores in 2005 it's because the record industry has crushed the legitimate interests of its consumers

Dan Tapscott

There will be a power shift from a one-size-fits-all model for the communications business dominated by broadcasters pumping out programmes to a mass audience, to a model in which the self-scheduling consumer has the power.

In this world the hunter becomes the hunted; the consumer does the hunting.

The television industry is facing "disaggregation" on a massive scale, in which the old rules - and crucially the old revenue models - no longer obtain.

All this threatens to have a seismic impact on the television industry, almost as dramatic as the impact of MP3 file-sharing and Napster on conventional record companies.

The music industry was suddenly confronted with an alternative to the CD over which they had no control and which brought them no revenue.

Tapscott's speech was preceded by a video made by Lindsey Fallow of Tomorrow's World devoted partly to DIVX.

This is the video equivalent of MP3, which allows file-sharers to download pirated copies of films and TV programmes from the web.

Tapscott's vision may be too apocalyptic.

Alain Levy, former head of Polygram, observed that CDs still sell in prodigious quantities and that the high street record stores won't all have closed by 2005.

There remains a huge market among older consumers who are not members of the digital generation and who like their entertainment to come in the old-fashioned way.

The future lies in programme-making - although how you persuade the consumer to pay for watching your programme is a problem no-one yet seems to have an answer to

Tapscott's response was: "If there are still record stores in 2005 it's because the record industry has crushed the legitimate interests of its consumers."

Nigel Walmsley, deputy chief executive of Carlton, pointed out that newspapers likewise are in robust good health.

Like the traditional TV scheduler they package and organise information and entertainment, and consumers seem to like it when someone does that for them.

Equally, much of Tapscott's analysis is based on the behaviour of television audiences in North America, where the ubiquity of computers and games consoles has meant children are spending much less time watching television.

In the UK children still watch and enjoy passive TV as much as they ever did - indeed viewing among children has recently increased.

Nonetheless if even part of what Tapscott says is true, it is an alarming prospect for traditional broadcasters.

They will have to find a way of satisfying older viewers who want traditional services.

At the same time they will need to cater for a new digital generation who will not be willing to pay for their television in the old ways - or indeed to consume it in the old ways.

Alain Levy says the answer for the record industry is to concentrate on its real business - identifying and nurturing talent - and on packaging and branding its products, and abandon the business of distribution.

If the analogy with television holds, that means broadcasting conventional TV channels (which is where broadcasters have traditionally made most money) will soon be a mug's game.

The future lies in programme-making - although how you persuade the consumer to pay for watching your programme is a problem no-one yet seems to have an answer to.

A version of this article appears in the BBC magazine Ariel

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