Viewtron Remembered Roundtable

On the 20th anniversary of Viewtron’s birth, Interactive Faculty Howard Finberg interviewed some people involved in the project about its impact on new media and their careers.

What were the biggest lessons you learned from your work at Viewtron?


Phil Meyer
: Timing is everything! Our vision was ahead of the technology. The ways we found to add value to news and advertising through electronic distribution were, however, right on target and anticipated much of what the Internet does today.


Reid Ashe: Viewtron gave us an unprecedented laboratory in which to investigate what keeps people engaged with a medium. They’ll always want to check on the approaching hurricane, but how do you keep them coming back between storms? The answer lies in identity and interaction. A successful medium reinforces its users’ identity as members of a community, culture, or community of interest. It engages them in interaction, with the producers and with each other. It provides or becomes what they talk about with their friends and family. Ultimately, this led me to a new definition of news: it’s whatever’s of current interest to the people around me. Without that interpersonal context, there’s no news. There’s only information.


Rita Haugh Oates: How you collect the data and what research you pay attention to makes a huge difference when you are relying on data to make business decisions. In the early days the data was collected with “buckets and flags.” A baseball story might get “hits” from the viewer passing through menus for news, for sports news, and for baseball news. So a single baseball news story might have three or four flags. But knowing that someone went down those paths did not tell how long they were staying online. We charged by the hour, so knowing “how long” was critically important to making a profit, but that information was missing until nearly the end of 1985.

Then it became clear that about 80 percent of the “sticky time” (time online) came in two categories: messaging (e-mail, bulletin boards, etc.) and education (where the viewer made a commitment to come to spend time; for example, 30 minutes a day on SAT review materials). Yet Viewtron was spending about 80 percent of its budget to create news, which generated less than 20 percent of the revenue. That’s when KR executives decided that this was NOT a news medium and they wanted to continue to be a news company. Had they known from the start this was happening, they might have made many different management decisions.


Chip Bok: While it was essential to keep everything in the box, I learned to think outside the box. It was a graphic-intensive service transmitting at a very slow rate, so “paint time” was always an issue. The graphics were object-oriented rather than bit-mapped, so I designed frames in a way that the objects would appear in a sequence the way you would tell a story. It was a simple form of animation. I also learned that the best technology doesn’t always translate into business success. We had a great service and were way ahead of our time. We were limited by transmission speed and a ready audience with computers.


Rhonda Rosenof: I learned to appreciate the power of online technology as well as computer technology in general. I also learned that if I don’t have the “proper” tools or resources to get something done, that I can probably come up with a workaround solution that gets the job done, though maybe not as elegantly.


Bob Cochnar: When Viewtron was a gleam in Jim Batten’s eye, the personal computer had hardly made a dent in anybody’s consciousness, which was the principal reason to develop a technology that would work with a television set and a black box supplied by AT&T. I think we did learn, however, that electronic information retrieval was going to work, but not immediately.


Ashe: Second lesson: when you try something new, you have to anticipate surprises. It simply will not turn out the way you expect, and you have to be prepared to adjust. Viewtron died from an excess of funding and expectation. Too much was invested in too specific a vision, and there was no appetite to change course.


What did you do, that in hindsight, you might have done differently?


Meyer: We made the mistake of thinking in newspaper analogies. Thus the central computer was like a printing press in our minds, and telephone wires were the delivery trucks. We never foresaw anything as free and open as the Internet or grasped that there would be no central computer. As newspaper people, we were looking for a community-based natural monopoly, like a newspaper, but without the variable costs of paper, ink, and transportation.


Ashe: I believe that at the end, we were finding our way toward a viable service, but we were burdened with too much cost and with a technical design that was optimized for an already-obsolete delivery mode. We should have started over, but that wasn’t an idea that we could sell.


How might have Viewtron been successful?


Ashe: Keep the cost down. Emphasize interactive and participatory features. De-emphasize (but don’t abandon completely) the graphics of which we were all so proud.


M. Beatriz Beltran: I thought the main journalistic focus of the system should have been to provide “personalized news.” As a telecommunication media, the system should have greatly emphasized the availability of interaction for the users, such as chat rooms and e-mail.


Meyer: The most important barrier was the price of the dedicated terminal. If our AT&T partners could have made it to sell for $200 instead of $400, we might have done a little better. Or we could have waited for penetration of personal computers to reach a critical threshold and then jumped in.


Oates: Senior managers and editors needed to think about how this new medium had power and possibilities that other media forms never had, rather than translating print news to screen delivery. What is best delivered in a new medium? What functions do existing media do well and thus are not targets for the new medium? Knowing the research on computer-based communication and on other systems would have been helpful, as would have some basic communication theory.


Bok: Viewtron had almost too many resources. By that I mean we offered an excellent product with all the bells and whistles before there was a market to absorb it. CompuServe, on the other hand, was bare bones and could only offer what it could sell as it grew. I always felt that if I wanted to buy tires and could simply type “tires” and Viewtron would give all the sizes and prices I needed in my area, it would become useful. Now you can do that with the Internet and big bandwidth, but you don’t really need a service like Viewtron to accomplish it. Maybe Viewtron needed to become Google.


What do you think might have happened in the newspaper industry if Viewtron had been allowed to continue?


Ashe: Not much. And that’s one of the reasons for the loss of interest. The more closely we approached a viable service, the less it looked like a newspaper.


Meyer: Not much. The best Knight Ridder could have done would have been to surge to the front of the online pack in place of AOL. To this day, we still don’t know the best way to combine the capabilities of print and online information. It will take a lot more experimentation — and many more failures — to find out. Among all the newspaper companies, ours was the best failure because we tried the hardest to do the most.


Beltran: Newspapers would have gone online faster than they did.

Ashe: “Ultimately, this led me to a new definition of news: it’s whatever’s of current interest to the people around me. Without that interpersonal context, there’s no news. There’s only information.”

Cochnar: Not much. We did prepare plans that would tie Viewtron directly to newspapers (with a tagline on the bottom of a story that might say, “for more information, please click WHATEVER on your Viewtron local index.” Never got off the ground, however. We all had notions that Viewtron could be an extension of the newspapers, which was surely a nice idea.


Bok: Nothing different than has happened. I think that’s why Knight Ridder let it die. They were satisfied that videotext wasn’t a threat to the newspaper industry. I do think Viewtron did things more elegantly than our current online vehicle and it would have been a nice supplement to newspapers. The difference is that we thought of Viewtron as a freestanding alternative to newspapers not so much as an online vehicle for newspapers.

What did Viewtron get right (20 years ago)?


Meyer: It saw that value could be added to newspaper information by speed (tomorrow’s headlines tonight), archiving, and narrowcasting, e.g. selling last-minute travel bargains. It provided e-mail. It recognized the potential for classified advertising.


Ashe: Bulletin boards, chats, e-mail, multi-player games, role-playing, user ratings, software downloads, news archives, stock quotes and charts, home banking, auctions, e-commerce. Lots of stuff.


Bok: The biggest thing it got right was online auctions. Maybe eBay should pay us a royalty. It was also very good at displaying images in a seamless fashion, much more so than you see today. Only the elements that needed to change changed when moving from frame to frame. It was good for online shopping and at identifying early on that people didn’t want to pay for online content.


Beltran: The working environment was a real team approach. We all loved the concept and the possibilities of the technology.


Cochnar: The idea that customers want more information on an almost infinite number of subjects was right on target. I believe the edited aspect of the program had, and still has, important implications. The Internet is, after all, a Pandora’s box. It’s chaotic, filled with dubious information, often clumsy. Viewtron attempted to organize information in an intelligent way, which is still a valid idea.

Oates: “About 80 percent of the ‘sticky time’ (time online) came in two categories: Messaging (email, bulletin boards, etc.) and education.”

Oates: Online ordering (though cumbersome by today’s standards). Tim Stehle ordered all his Christmas presents online in December 1983 or 1984, just to prove it could be done. Online banking (again, much improved by today’s standards). People had been reluctant to use ATMs just a few years before Viewtron’s launch. And interactivity of education materials with a couple of key examples: Immediate feedback on SAT prep materials, instant scoring before PC versions of SAT materials were available, interactive college searching (at that time present only on mainframes and with a skilled counselor, extremely expensive, and not very flexible) and offering an electronic encyclopedia (Grolier’s) and working with them to create new entries as we found subjects either missing or very weak.


What did Viewtron get wrong (20 years ago)?


Meyer: Failure to think farther outside the newspaper, local-monopoly box.


Cochnar: Just about everything else. Our reliance on a clunky black box with a “chicklet” keyboard was a huge error, but what did we know? Our attempt to develop fancy graphics was time-consuming for both the graphic designer and the customer and really didn’t add very much to the product. To have created one test site (in Coral Gables) instead of several around the country was probably a mistake.


Beltran: Pricing and the pre-usability testing techniques employed. Probably the interviewed target audience did not really know what they wanted. How can people ask for something they have never experienced before?


Rosenof: Bad timing and that stupid “chicklet” keypad that we all hated. Maybe if they had a HUGE marketing and advertising budget they might have been able to win more people over.


Oates: Assuming from the start that only a proprietary box (Sceptre from AT&T Bell Labs) could be used. I remember in my job interview in November 1982 being told flat out that the system would NOT run on any personal computers and I was not to pester them about that. I said then to John Woolley, “When the day comes that you tell me to convert my code to run on Ataris or Commodores, I promise I won’t say ‘I told you so.’” That day came less than 12 months after I was hired. Because my staff had planned from day one that this was likely to happen, we needed about 24 hours to tweak our code to work in the new system. Not so with other departments. The “vision” wasn’t very far out.


Ashe: “Ultimately, this led me to a new definition of news: it’s whatever’s of current interest to the people around me. Without that interpersonal context, there’s no news. There’s only information.” Did Viewtron change the direction of your career?


Ashe: No, but it changed the texture of it. It gave me insight and perspective on traditional media. It stimulated my interest in public (or civic) journalism, because that’s another form of engagement. It prepared me to understand the Internet better as it grew into a more important part of our business. I wouldn’t trade my Viewtron experience for anything.


Meyer: It made my three years on the corporate staff more interesting and probably postponed my eventual departure for academe.


Bok: It put an interesting wrinkle in my career. I wanted to be an editorial cartoonist and that’s what I am, but I’m thankful I took the Viewtron detour.


Cochnar: Other than to say, with a slight stretch, that I was present at the creation, not much. I returned after my electronic stint to newspapers.


Oates: It was a wonderful, goofy, and fun joyride while it lasted. I got to leverage things I had learned in earning four college degrees (two in journalism, one in education, and one in mass communications).


Beltran: It made me hungry for more technology and more dedicated to share with others what I learn.


Rosenof: Yes. I had a degree in learning disabilities but didn’t really want to teach. My job as an education developer at Viewtron got me a technical training manager job at CompuServe which then led me to become program director for the Computer Training & Support Conference. Now I’m Director of Training and Customer Support for Spherical Dynamics. While each position was a natural progression from the prior, I’m certain that the ball would never have gotten rolling in the technology/online technology direction without the Viewtron experience.


Any final thoughts?


Meyer: I contend it’s the 25th anniversary, not the 20th. I first learned about the project on Jan. 2, 1978 when it was called “Bowsprit.” According to (AT&T executive Michael) Noll, the deal with AT&T was set in April of that year.


Bok: Viewtron was a cutting edge project. It was full of bright young people with energy and enthusiasm. They were fun people and it was a fun place to be with what seemed like a limitless future. As it turned out, there were limits, but I wouldn’t trade that time of my life for anything.


Ashe: In 1996, on the 10th anniversary of Viewtron’s closing, we had a reunion in Miami. Close to 100 people showed up. Not bad for a staff that never numbered much more than 200. I think that shows that it wasn’t just me — it was an experience that we all hold dear.

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