Ken Auletta on Communications Futures

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Ken Auletta
Title: “Ken Auletta on Communications Futures”
VTR: 7/7/93

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And aside from my own odyssey from young man to old, of all the changes that have taken place since I began this program nearly four decades ago, few seem to be now more mind-boggling than those in communications itself, person to person and mass communications alike. And that’s why I’ve invited journalist, commentator Ken Auletta to join me here once again.

For no one I know is more perceptive, more sensitive, more understanding in his various analyses of communications futures. And my first question then is what’s the upside and what’s the downside of those futures?

Auletta: The upside, simply put, is that viewers, and they may be people who read magazines and newspaper, but can view them electronically in the evening, for instance…if you want to watch The New York Times instead of running to the newsstand as few of us do at quarter to 10 at night, you want to view it on your computer screen or your television screen, or maybe your telephone console, you’ll be able to do that. So you’ll have a democracy of choice. That’s the great upside…the upside that, that I, as a viewer, or a listener, or a participant in this new media technology will be able to…will be empowered to select what I want to watch or listen when I want to watch or listen to it. Not when some network, or some station or some channel decides. So we’re…we’ll be in a post-channel universe where I can basically plug into my video jukebox and watch any movie, any show, including a repeated show that I want. That’s, that’s a great plus…empowerment, democracy. The great negative is in the…the negative is in the positive. Because within that democracy you will be losing a common frame a common sense of community. We will not have the same shared experience as we had, say, in, in the early eighties where nine out of ten people on a given night were watching one of every three networks…just three networks. And, and, and the next day at the water cooler after 77% of Americans watched a mini-series like “Roots” in 1977, the next day at the water cooler they could talk about race relations in America because they all shared that common experience. You don’t have that shared experience, and you’ll have less and less of it in this new technological future. And you pay a price for that in a world that’s already balkanized, or communities that are already balkanized, caught up in special interests and special pleadings. You’ll have more of that…less…rather than less.

Heffner: You know it’s interesting…you, you start off with that point and in this intriguing piece that you wrote in The New Yorker for…about Barry Diller’s search for the future, when you concluded it, you said, “The economic and social consequences of the technology revolution that Diller envisions are also unclear, of course, and so is the larger philosophical question of whether his efforts and those of technology in general may further weaken our already fragile sense of community”. Then you mention Neil Postman, and you say, “Neil Postman, who has written about television as a narcotic, has now written a book about technology. Although Postman speaks specifically of computers, he is making a broader point”. And you quote Postman: “Now comes the computer carrying a new the banner of private learning and individual problem solving. Will the widespread use of computers in the classroom defeat once and for all the claims of communal speech? Will the computer raise ego-centrism to the status of a virtue?” I guess that’s what you mean, is that the upside…

Auletta: That is what I mean.

Heffner: …is in the downside, or the downside…

Auletta: Yes.

Heffner: …is in the upside.

Auletta: It’s…the downside is I, I, I…it’s, it’s…television is essentially a passive activity, though you can make an argument and I would that one of the upside potentials here is to transform this passive box into something that you inter-act with, and, and when you have a multi-channel universe, you have the ability, technologically, to talk to your television set, and to have programmed tutorials for you, if you want to learn about ancient Egypt, and have your television set talk back to you. The technology is there to do that in the next several years. Not, not just the technology to allow you to have a, a replay of a sporting event, or catch a football game, but, but literally to have your kids in front of the TV set instead of being a passive vegetable., can actually engage in some kind of a tutorial program in her class.

Heffner: Yes, but Ken, you know, it intrigues me…you, you write this for The New Yorker magazine. It has a kind of elitist…

Auletta: Yes.

Heffner: …readership. And I wonder whether this technology of the future, the communications futures that you write about and you describe so well, aren’t we talking…you, you use the phrase…use the word “democracy”…democracy of choice…but isn’t it a democracy of choice among a very limited electorate?

Auletta: Well, potentially, no. It is…certainly now it is, and certainly the big issue that, that, that stands before this brave new world, or one of the …certainly, the big issue is, is, is how to make technology user-friendly. For instance, I mean most people I know don’t know how to use their VCR to tape a program when they go out at night.

Heffner: I have a wife who does, so she does it…

Auletta: Well…

Heffner: …for me.

Auletta: …well, that, that is true with many of us…I have a young daughter who is very skilled at that. But the truth is that many of these devices that have been made are not user-friendly. But if you enter a world, which we’re going to, and this is what they’re spending…if you go to the laboratories…be it the telephone company laboratory or the cable laboratories, or the laboratories of people investing…computer laboratories, you will see that they’re spending an enormous amount of, of effort and monies trying to devise user-friendly devices…to make it easy for you to program your VCR, but also your TV. So it’s not just for the elite, that is to say, instead of having to press in a series of, of numbers on your computer to call…do home shopping, or to do home banking…what if you could do it verbally, with a voice? And instead of writing, instead of typing on your computer…a lot of people don’t know how to type…what if you…as the Newton (???) which is that new portable, digital assistant, they’re called…this little robot, personal robot…it’s about this big, that Apple Computer’s working on, and other computer companies are working on their own…I mean you literally carry it around. It’s a telephone, it’s a computer screen, it’s, it’s a fax machine, you know, it’s all these things in one…it’s a television set. Okay, it could be a, you know, a music box, and you literally write instructions. You don’t have to type anything. There’s no keyboard…you write in what you want done. What happens if you could write in on your computer screen, if you don‘t want to type? Or what happens if you could do voice-activate and say, “Call my bank”, or “Call my supermarket and say I need a head of broccoli, I need a gallon of milk, okay, and deliver it to my address.”? They have your card number and all. What if you could do that? It’s user-friendly as can be. What happens if instead of having…if you forget how to program your VCR…you just say…”I missed SIXTY MINUTES last night”…talking…well, you type in, type in…you just type in SIXTY MINUTES…boom…it appears. What if you could do that?

Heffner: What if…

Auletta: Then it’s not for the elite.

Heffner: What if you could do it?

Auletta: Well, it, it, it opens up a whole new world…certainly financially for the companies involved. It’s phenomenal. I mean look…step back a second and what, what are we really talking about when we talk about his communication revolution that you mentioned earlier in the, in introducing the program? What you’re talking about is out there. You have these giant companies…you have the telephone company, you have the computer companies, you have the cable companies, you have the network companies, you have consumer electronics companies…okay…and they are all vying to do something very, very similar. And they’re starting to form partnerships, one with the other…in some places, cable and telephone companies…other places…telephone…oh, and I forgot the Hollywood studios, pardon me…

Heffner: And don’t forget R. H. Macy’s.

Auletta: That’s a whole other thing. I, I don’t include them because unless they get into the business of actually distributing their products through home shopping…

Heffner: So you’re just talking about the, the…

Auletta: But, but the electronic…I’m talking about the electronic. Electronic and product. In that sense, Macy’s is like the studio…they, they can provide a product, as can Saks or Tiffany’s or anyone else. We have all of these companies. They’re starting to merge and from partnerships with each other in…different partnerships in different places. In some cases…in some cities, or states or regions, the telephone company and the, and the cable companies are at war, just as the telephone companies and the newspapers are at war…another group I left off, by the way, in the, in the software of product business. But in other places, they’re allies. But all these companies are going to come together, and there’ll be some winners and losers. We don’t yet know who will win and who will lose. But certainly there will be, there will be losers in that and because what’s going to happen is that there’s a, a natural competition going on. What is going to be our TV screen? Is it going to be the computer screen? Or is it going to be the TV screen? Or is it going to be the telephone which is going to have the screen? You don’t need all those three screens. There’s going to be some merging of those functions. I mean it could be three or four of them. It could be the telephone company will be the distribution arm of their screen. I’m must hypothesizing, and that, and that the cable company will be the “wire” into that, rather than, rather than the telephone wire because the cable wire is a better wire. And, and it could be that the studios in partnership providing the product that goes over that wire and into that screen. Or maybe it will be the networks. Or maybe it will be what Disney is doing with, and, and Sega, and, and all these…they’re consumer electronics…little game shows…Hollywood studios…you know marry with the electronic companies to provide a new animated game. I mean all of this is happening before our eyes. And it provides opportunities, but also the, you know, pitfalls.

Heffner: Now, when you’re all through describing these potentials…potential combinations, what good is it going to do us as a people?

Auletta: Well, it depends on how it shakes out. It, it can do good. I could also do bad. The bad is obvious. It’s the one I mentioned earlier…the, the largest bad. There are others, but the largest bad is that it could further our self-absorption, which is already legendary, and makes us even more self-absorbed, more passive, more non-social. “Let’s stay in the house tonight, let’s not go out”. I mean when I was a kid…one of the reasons you have a, a spurt in crime in the society is because it used to be, as Jane Jacobs wrote several decades ago, you had “eyes on the street” in a city. People sat on their stoops at night and they policed the street, and if they saw a stranger, they were out there to prevent the strangers…a stranger wouldn’t act with a, with an audience. But also they, it was an early warning system. They could say “Who is that? Who are those people?”…you know, cruising in that car. “That’s the second time they’ve been around the street”. Well, lost of things change, including high rise apartments which replaced the stoop/porch and all. But the bigger change is television, which drew people inside their homes, and kept them off the streets. And they sat there…well, if in fact television is more attractive to people, they have many more choices…they can watch any movie they want, whenever they want…they don’t have to go out and shop anymore, they don’t have to go out and bank anymore. You know, stay in the house. If they can figure out how to make it user friendly…which they can, I think. Well, then that’s a, that’s a major negative because it means there’s less social intercourse, and less sense of a community.

Heffner: Okay, that answers the question in part. It reminds me at the beginning…in the fifties when television was just coming into its own, and there was a wonderful cartoon somewhere, and I don’t really quite remember where, of man of the future…it was a Cyclops…

Auletta: (Laughter)

Heffner: …just one single big eye in the middle of his, or her forehead because that’s all you needed focused on the television screen. That has to do with one very important aspect of this. What about content? I mean your, your…what with the invention of the long distance telephone…what, after all, is there to say?

Auletta: Well, you, you, you have again…you can go one of two ways. Either…it could be either a benefit or a, or a detriment.

Heffner: What’s your bet?

Auletta: Ahmm…both at the same time. You will have more choices, and you will be able to see documentaries, if you wanted to see that and news…serious documentaries. You’d be able to see history, call up tutorials…you want to study ancient Greece, you’ll be able to do it. Your encyclopedia, whatever…call up books, do it. Your library of choices will be vaster. And, and if you have special interests…a Black network, you have it now, you’ll have more…okay. News…CNN, C-SPAN, CNN II, CNN International, you’ll have that, too. The, the downside is that it…good quality programs…I mentioned “Roots”, the mini-series, which ran and galvanized three-quarters of all Americans for an entire week in 1977…an entire week…five nights in a row. Three out of every four Americans watched this single show. I mean that’s extraordinary, if you think about it. And it was a good show, but it was an expensive show. And if you don’t, if you no longer have a massive audience, you, you can’t afford the expense of doing that kind of a quality mini-series. That’s a major downfall, and a major detriment to this new video technology because empowering people to have thousands of choices, means you subtract the ability to have a single wonderful choice.

Heffner: That’s a rather grim prospect, and it seems to me that it’s not a matter of choice, it’s a matter of almost of inevitability. That if you’re talking about the multiplicity of inputs, aren’t you, by definition, talking about the, the culturally rich getting richer and the culturally poor, getting poorer? The educated becoming more educated, having more of an ability to choose that history program.

Auletta: I’m a great believer that most public issues, if we can call these pubic issues, and I think we can, don’t come down to “yes”, “no” answers. They come down to “yes, but”, or “not, but”, and I think the answers here are “Yes, but’, “No, but”. That is to say, on the one hand there will be losers in this system and it could be that the vast public will lose some wonderful choices they have traditionally had, particularly network choices they’ve had over the years, because the network had the mass audience and could afford to spend that kind of money on programming. I mean, take for instance, the popular show “Hill Street Blues”, the Steven Bochco creation. I think it was 1981 for NBC. It was on the air for about seven years…it was a wonderful, it was really a pioneering police show. But it was a pioneering urban show, and it was a pioneering show about relationships, not just about cops, and though it was about that as well. A show like that is very expensive to do. I mean it probably, in the end, when it got off the air, was costing a million and a quarter a week to produce that show, and today it would be two million dollars a week to produce “Hill Street Blues”. Well, who’s going to be able to afford two million dollars an episode to produce a show if they don’t have a big audience that can attract big advertising dollars for it? So, it’s a real, it’s a real problem. Or conversely, the way you can afford a big event, let’s say a big sporting event, pay-per-view.

Heffner: Mmmhmm.

Auletta: But people have to pay $20. How many Americans can afford that? Then, then you leave it for the rich, or the elite to do. That’s, that’s a major negative with, with this new technology. Because you’re, you’re basically, you’re destroying your mass communications vehicles…your networks, your, your big stations. The…or potentially destroying them…or weakening them, certainly. On the other hand, if I tell you that, that your grandchild, age 11, can, can study ancient Greece, or, or, I could tell you that you’re going to Italy, and you could, you could call us with the flick of your wrist, and, and punch in a couple of numbers, and you can call up the history of the Renaissance, and, and, and look at, look up the cities you may want to visit, and try and figure out where you want to go to, to improve your own vacation, and your own education. Then that becomes an opportunity.

Heffner: Yeah, and I see the opportunity. I’m concerned that when Alexander is 11 ½, or Jeremy is 11 ½, that they’ll be able to be better educated, that the potential for them to become more familiar with the nature of the world will be that much greater, but less so for more and more…

Auletta: I think that’s…

Heffner: …of their fellows.

Auletta: …I think that’s true. On balance, when you would talk about education and culture, and, and the…of the citizenry, I’m more in the pessimist camp than I would be in the optimist camp in the following sense, and it’s a, it’s a more subtle point, I think. What really bothers me is what television viewing does, particularly that clicker to our attention span. It seems to me…I mean reading is hard work, I know that. Writing is hard work…reading is hard work, you’ve go to retain information, you’ve got to, you’ve got to follow the story, you can’t get the information quickly. You’ve got to go slowly. You can re-read it. It takes work to read. Television…pictures…takes much less work to do. And when you’ve got that clicker that allows you to jump at a commercial break, or even not at a commercial break…I mean I was reading something…a cover story in “Newsweek”, and, and they were talking about how Bill Clinton watches three shows at once. Well, he’s very much like my ten year old. You know that’s how kids often watch television, and they listen to the radio, and they have their CD player on at the same time. And it…inevitably that clicker and the television and that choice will attenuate your attention span. And if you go and you talk to a teacher, and you, and you really press them, what…who’s their real competition? Okay. The real competition for teachers is television. Because they increasingly have to figure out ways to seduce their kids to learn, when their kids are used to entertaining packages…”Gimme a package, don’t lecture me”. They don’t want that anymore. It’s not the, the three R’s anymore. And it’s, it’s very tough in our schools, and it’s very tough in our homes, and it’s very tough everywhere and it will get tougher.

Heffner: What was it that Marshall McLuhan said, “Every school child knows that going to school interrupts his education”.

Auletta: (Laughter)

Heffner: You know, it’s funny…

Auletta: I know. I don’t believe that.

Heffner: Despite what you just said?

Auletta: You don’t…no…

Heffner: Is education to become an educated person?

Auletta: No, he’s saying the opposite of what I believe. I mean what I believe is that the school is the place to get an education. And it shouldn’t interrupt your education.

Heffner: But he’s saying every school child knows that today that is the case. You’re saying it shouldn’t be.

Auletta: Yeah, but I’m also…I would also say that it’s not necessarily getting an education, but staying home and watching that television set.

Heffner: I, I see what it is that you’re saying, although I, I…I’m amused when you talk about Bill Clinton watching three shows at once. The complaint I hear most frequently, on the part of my women friends who complain about their husbands, as my wife does about me, that we’re the ones who click, click, click, click from one channel to another, and I’ve often wondered why men do, women don’t.

Auletta: That I, I, I wouldn’t pretend to have an answer to. I’m not even sure it’s true. I don’t know.

Heffner: Oh, I’m sure there are a lot of people sitting out there right now saying…who are saying “Heffner’s right…what he’s, what he’s saying…

Auletta: But, you know, it’s like…

Heffner: …it’s the men who do it.

Auletta: …it’s like the, the…Nora Ephron’s new movie “Sleepless in Seattle”, and, and she makes…it’s a wonderful movie and it’s very funny, and as is…but it keeps on coming up, “did you see ‘An Affair to Remember’ “, and the men’s…she…so the movie says, “All men hate ‘An Affair to Remember’ and all the women cry”. And well, the fact is I cried in “An Affair to Remember”. I love that movie. And actually I was thrilled a couple of years ago when it came out on tape so I can show it to my kid. My wife and I have…and kids sat around and watched it…loved it. So the stereotype that all men hate, you know, “An Affair to Remember” certainly doesn’t apply to me, and I’m sure it doesn’t apply to a lot of other men. I’m not sure the stereotype that men only use the clicker, women don’t, is, is true. You know as well as I do that more women watch television then men, and you know as well as I do, that advertisers are increasingly worried about the problem of, of that remote clicker, people not watching their ads.

Heffner: So you derive…

Auletta: Well, some of those people are women.

Heffner: So you derive from that the notion that they know that women are beginning to do that.

Auletta: Yeah, they have…I, I think that’s true, of course.

Heffner: You know, your description of the New York Times and of…let’s not be parochial, people in Washington, as Los Angeles, etc., are watching this…the idea of ten o’clock at night, 10:30…not going down to the store to get the early edition…watching it on television…that gives me the shivers, it gives me the “willies”, just the physical thought of not having something in my hand, not having the relationship to print…

Auletta: Well…

Heffner: …that I would have now.

Auletta: …there are two answers…

Heffner: …not to you?

Auletta: …there are two answers to that. Yeah, I like to get my fingers dirty. (Laughter)…

Heffner: Which you do on The New York Times.

Auletta: That’s right. But the truth is you could…a) you could…there’s nothing to say that you won’t still have a printed newspaper. You can just get it, but those people who want it electronically, or those people who wish to call up certain stories can do that electronically, subscribe…and they’ll pay for it. It won’t be free.

Heffner: Rich getting richer, poor getting poorer.

Auletta: That’s right…it’ll be…you’ll pay. And secondly, if, if you’re willing to pay, you could also get a printout of it. You can press your print button, and, and get a, you know, some…it won’t be in newsprint, it’ll be paper, but you can get it. But you can also get, as, as long as people buy newspapers, you, you’ll still have a newspaper out there which you can get. Ahmmm. But, you know, for some people it becomes an attractive…an attractive alternative. You can get The Wall Street Journal today electronically. I think at one o’clock, or two o’clock in the morning…Dow Jones will…

Heffner: Now, we only have a couple of minutes left…when you were here a couple of years ago, we talked about Three Blind Mice, the demise of the networks, or at least the fall of the networks. What do you see happening in that arena now? In the next couple of years?

Auletta: I see the networks continuing as, as the book predicted, and has been true to lose audience, as the audience fractionates, as people get more choices, they inevitably will rely less an less on just three choices. That will continue. The great challenge of the network, which I said in my book, and I think is still true, is, is to find other sources of revenue…the way cable has other sources of revenue, the way the tele…the studios have other sources of revenue. And government is the key in that regard, and government is beginning to relax the regulations that prohibited the network from getting into other businesses. And that could mean a more healthy network environment, and if, in fact, they have other sources of revenue, then it becomes easier for them to make the investments that you’d like them to make in quality programming.

Heffner: Ken Auletta, we have reached the end of our program today. Stay where you are, there’s another program I want to do, and I want to talk about your profession, the profession of journalism and where and what it is today. Okay? But thanks for joining me today.

Auletta: My pleasure.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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