Why We Will Never Have
Interactive Television

Why You Should Stop @#!%&*-ing Around
and Get on the Internet NOW!

This article was original printed in the August 1994 issue of DM News.

          When I look at the plans big corporations have for Interactive TV (over 30 prototypes have failed in tests so far), I'm reminded of the opening of Claude Hopkins' "Things Too Costly" chapter in the 1923 book "Scientific Advertising."

          Hopkins wrote: "Many things are possible in advertising which are too costly to attempt . . . changing people's habits is very expensive. To sell shaving soap to the peasants of Russia one would first need to change their beard-wearing habits. The cost would be excessive. Yet countless advertisers try to do things almost as impossible. Just because questions are not ably considered and results are untraced and unknown."

          Television watching is not an interactive activity. Yes, there will always be a small handful of enthusiasts buying a new gizmo and playing with it for a little while, but in all the years that interactive TV tests have been run, none of these systems has inspired passion or, more importantly for our purposes as direct marketers, habitual use.

          Like the peasants of old Russia, TV watchers are set in their ways. Yes, they'll get up from the sofa to order a pizza or a magazine subscription. And companies like QVC have discovered a unique subspecies: consumers who watch TV with their telephones and credit cards on their laps, the better to order jewelry, clothing and assorted tchachkas. While it is possible to not only make money but also become rich selling to this group, QVC's audience is not the future of electronic marketing.

          We will have an information superhighway, but it will be based not on the well-named "idiot box," but on networked personal computers.

          Some evidence: Bill Gates, the world's most important software man, and Andy Grove, the world's most important chip man, say so. Software sales already dwarf the output of film, TV and recording studios. Dollars spent on personal computers exceed dollars spent on TVs and the gap is widening exponentially. And what's most important is that these two giants, and the millions of industry members they represent know interactivity like Claude Hopkins knew salesmanship in print. They're not speculating on something that might someday be. They're observing a phenomenon in progress.

          Not convinced? How about this bizarre but unmistakable sign that real people are beginning to embrace the idea of PCs as a home appliance: Howard Stern recently took time from his usual on-air banter to explain how he's set up his laptop computer to operate his compact disc player. Then he went on to extol IBM's OS/2 operating system, adding that Microsoft Windows "sucks" by comparison. Not a commercial. Just the most influential radio personality having a chat with an audience of millions he knows like the back of his hand.

          Still not convinced? How about a little history. Let's look at the telephone, the wildly successful interactive communications medium that people use several billion times a day. Did AT&T decree that every home would have a telephone and that they would be used to order products and information? No, far from it.

          Although patented in 1876, it wasn't until the early 1920s that the telephone reached the same level of in-home penetration the personal computer enjoys today. At first, telephones were expensive, unreliable, hard-to-manage devices. They were used by professionals like stock traders, journalists and law enforcement officers who had an obvious and immediate use for them. Others, authorities like the chief engineer of the British Postal and Telegraph System (then the biggest telecommunications infrastructure in the world) , scorned them as an impractical, unnecessary luxury. He said of his telephone: "I have one in my office, but mostly for show. If I want to send a message, I employ a boy to take it."

          In a very real sense, telephone users invented the telephone as we know it today. If you think about it, how could it have happed any other way?

          The inventors of new technologies are notoriously shortsighted when it comes to envisioning how their creations will he used. Alexander Graham Bell thought the telephone would best be used to pipe music into people's homes. No one anticipated the telephone becoming an instrument for personal conversation or imagined the thousands of unique businesses that would spring up around them. The telephone may have been born in a laboratory and financed on Wall Street, but it was regular people in the real, everyday world who invented practical interactivity.

    Given this history of the telephone, does it really seem likely that a hodgepodge of publishers, broadcasters, cable operators and telephone service providers are going to be able to create, out of whole cloth, an interactive communications system that real people are going to use and pay for? It's an attractive fantasy, but that's all it is. The hard-for-some-to-swallow fact is the "golden age" of three TV networks and one telephone company ruling the world and making all the money is over for good. No amount of wishful thinking, research dollars or hype is going to bring it back in a new incarnation. Interactive TV, like the emperor from the fairy tale, is buck naked.

          What is happening is that while millions of corporate dollars are being spent trying to cook up a workable interactive TV scheme, millions of people are beginning to use their once "expensive, unreliable, hard-to-manage" personal computers for personal communications. And a small but growing percentage are starting to fool around with sending and receiving video. The importance of these twin phenomena cannot be overestimated.

          Just as the British empire's leading authority on telecommunications dismissed the telephone, you may choose to dismiss these new developments as an extravagant fad. You have every right and you'll be in good company. Less than 20 years ago, the CEO of Digital Equipment, then the world's second-largest computer manufacturer, ridiculed the very notion of personal computing. Today, the company is gushing barrels of red ink with no end in sight.

          The fact is, after an appalling start (few industries have gotten away with such a shameless run of empty hype and broken promises), personal computers are getting cheaper and faster. The ease with which people can communicate via their computers is increasing rapidly. And business people are discovering the wonders of E-mail. If you're already an E-mail user vou don't need to be sold, but if you're not you're missing out on something significant.

          I first got hip to E-mail when I was trying to track down an acquaintance from college I hadn't spoken with in 10 years. No one I knew had a current address or telephone number for him, but someone did have an Internet address. I called up another friend who had an Internet account and asked him to send David a message to call me. A day later, the phone rang and we were connected. In the course of our conversation, David said something I found startling:

      "It's a good thing you sent me E-mail. If you'd written or phoned me there's no telling when I'd have gotten back to you. I barely look at my mail and I'm terrible about returning phone calls."

          Here was something I had never encountered before in my life and didn't even suspect existed; a well-paid person with ample disposable income who prefers E-mail to all other forms of mediated communication. Not much later, I read that Bill Gates, America's richest man, routinely receives and responds to E-mail messages from total strangers. Intriguing to say the least. What kind of phenomenal direct mail or telemarketing strategy would you have to employ to accomplish this same feat?

          Now that I'm an Internet user, I'm as fond of it as my friend David is. I can answer seven or more E-maiI messages in the time it takes to answer one telephone message.

          Contrast the following all-too-common telephone scenario with E-mail communication. Let's imagine you want to alert a colleague to an article in this week's DM News.

    (Ring, Ring, Ring)

    Receptionist: Hello, Acme, Zenith and Timeblaster. Please hold.

    (Hold for 10 seconds.)

    Receptionist: Hello, How may I help you?

    You: Yes. Is Bob Smith in please?

    Receptionist: No, he's out of the office right now. His calls are being switched to me. Can I take a message? Oh, could you hold pIease?

    (Hold for 10 seconds.)

    Receptionist: Thanks for holding. Can I take a message for Mr. Smith?

    You: Yes. This is Ken McCarthy and I'd like to tell him . . .

    Receptionist: Is that "M-C" or "M-A-C"?

          And so on, round and round the mulberry bush, just to transmit the simplest of messages.

          Now look at how Internet E-mail handles this:

    1. Turn on your mail program.

    2. Address E-mail to Bob Smith by typing "" or something similar and hit return (if his address is already in your computer, this can be done with just one keystroke).

    3. Write in the topic: "DM News article" and hit return.

    4. Say your piece: "Read a great article on E-mail in this week's DM News. Check it out. It's on page 40. Ken." Hit return.

          The message is automatically sent and is in his mailbox, just the way you sent it, in a matter of seconds. If he's on the other side of the world, it might take a bit longer depending on traffic, but there's no charge for the distance sent. You pay for your local Internet connection only.

          When Bob receives your thoughtful message, he can respond in a few seconds just by hitting the reply key and typing "Thanks." The E-mail is preaddressed to you, the sender, for easy response. Bob can also quote your message for reference with a keystroke to refresh your memory about what he's responding to.

          For quick, informal messages, the kind that everyday business depends on, which system would you rather use? And I've described only one of many ways to use E-mail. E-mail users are inventing new ones all the time.

          You have a mailing address, a telephone number and a fax number, don't you?

          Now you need one more line on your business card; your Internet E-mail address. This simple step will open a new channel of communication between you, your company and an audience of what some estimate to be as many as 50 million well-educated, affluent people worldwide. Your prospects and customers can use E-mail to make inquiries, order products and offer suggestions. And once you learn a bit about the unique social niceties that have grown up around E-mail, you can use it to sell.

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    ©Ken McCarthy, 2000