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WORKING WEEKEND: Whose industry is it, anyway?

18 Jan, 2002 By: Bruce Apar

Right about now, a lot of people in the home entertainment business must be asking themselves, "What business, exactly, am I in?"

The confusion is understandable. I've been surfing the last few minutes and thought this week in this space I'd share with you the topography I'm surveying. It's not unlike gazing at a circuit board: it all looks amazingly complex, and you have no idea what it's all about or how it works.

We're in a business that has a studio like Universal naming a VP, Broadband Technologies, and a telephone-cum-cable giant, AT&T Broadband, that has a SVP, Programming & Satellite Services. Clearly, the former Ma Bell is trying to figure out what business it is in, or should be in.

It might try the adult video trade, which just came out of a highly successful convention in Vegas, where there was something else going on at the same time, something to do with consumer electronics. Oh, that's right, you might have heard the one about AT&T already being the largest provider of adult entertainment (what some insensitively call pornography) in the world, or at least this country, which sometimes mistakes itself for the world.

We're in a business where Blockbuster just got done shacking up with a hardware-retail partner and now is ready to strike out on its own as a merchant of home electronics. And why not. We've been preaching the eplex gospel for a couple years now, whereby in storefront and virtual venues there are end-to-end electronic entertainment environments. It's happening and who doesn't expect Blockbuster to be leading the way. John Antioco didn't just get a new five-year renewal from notoriously hard-nosed Sumner Redstone for being a slouch. This guy's the real deal. Just ask any indie rental store. They'd rather get grilled by George Foreman under a naked light bulb than go one round with Antioco. Love to see how many zeroes his contract has in it.

We're in a business where DVDs are overrunning everything in their path, and yet are still not exactly what they seem. Oh, sure, they are movies and Web links and director's commentaries and Disney delivering ever-more butt-kicking special editions that shame most of its competition. (There's something about the Disney DVD packaging -- I'm looking right now on my desk at Tombstone, Tron, The Sixth Sense -- that makes your mouth water.)

But when it comes to DVD, this is not your father's video format. Videocassettes are like monoliths compared with the polymorphous DVD. It's the Zelig of formats, appearing anywhere and everywhere. Stick it in a set-top, a desktop, a laptop, a dashboard, a palmtop portable player or digital camera -- you get the point. Every industry wants a piece of this prodigy.

So we're in a business that Microsoft now has squarely in its crosshairs. In a business that is abuzz about the emergence as soon as this fall of an omnivorous configuration – whether it be Xbox or this successor HomeStation thingamajig – that will be like having Houston Space Control in your home to play, record, access any kind of entertainment option out there.

We're in a business where rocket scientists are giddy about the prospects of digital cinema, so much so that one – Boeing -- just went and got itself a Beverly Hills agent.

We're in a business where the VSDA and its partner in show business, Home Entertainment Events (half-owned by my employer, Advanstar), are doing their damnedest to prove there's life in them there annual conventions … in the summer … in the desert. Thank goodness there are determined, hardworking folks who are doing something about providing a place for the industry to congregate, communicate, compare notes and chill out – so to speak.

Whatever heck business it is we're in, it needs its own annual gathering, but then I'm biased. I'm also convinced there's several thousand more who feel likewise, Dan Linzmeier notwithstanding. But he does have very good points. I'm just sorry he'll miss the fun at the Rio.

We're in a business that, for many of us, is all we've known for the last quarter-century. Let's just say we've more than earned the right to have a milllennium-sized identity crisis.

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