It was, if nothing else, a smooth presentation. Remote control in hand, Time Warner chairman Gerald Levin last week greeted a crowd of skeptical reporters in an Orlando, Florida, hotel ballroom, then pushed the "on" button and, with the help of Jim Chiddix, Time Warner Cable's technology chief, began the first public demonstration of the world's most sophisticated -- and expensive -- interactive-TV system.
Nearly two years have passed since Levin announced Time Warner's plan to invest $5 billion over five years for construction of what he called the Full Service Network. Within 18 months, he promised, his company would begin delivering interactive-video services to an area embracing 4,000 Time Warner Cable customers in suburban Orlando. It was now eight months late and at least 3,995 customers shy of the target, but Levin finally had something to show.
First he ordered a movie: a Sylvester Stallone vehicle called the The Specialist (cost: $2.95). Then, pressing the "fast-forward" button on his remote, he zipped ahead to what he said was his favorite scene -- Sharon Stone bending down to place flowers on the grave of the family she had lost to a mob bombing. He pressed "pause" and, like a gadget-crazed kid, began putting his multimillion-dollar toy through its paces. With The Specialist still on hold, he ordered a second movie, The Client, fast-forwarded to another favorite scene -- where Susan Sarandon is deciding whether or not to take Brad Renfro's case -- and pressed "pause" again.
"Now let's see if we can break it," he said. With both movies on hold, he returned to the main menu -- a revolving carousel offering shopping, games, sports, news, movies. He entered a computer-generated shopping mall, complete with a white stucco Crate & Barrel store and the curved glass facade of Sharper Image. He visited a Post Office shop that offered next-day stamp delivery and three-hour package pickup. He popped into the Warner Bros. Studio Store, where he ordered a pair of $10 raspberry-colored baseball caps. He visited the video-game area and played interactive gin rummy with the Willards, the FSN's first live customers, who were sitting at a TV set down the road.
Finally he returned to his movies to see whether the system remembered where he had left off. He selected The Specialist, and sure enough, there was Sharon Stone, still bending over that grave with the flowers in her hand. The room burst into applause.
This was the holy grail of interactive television: true video on demand. What you want to see, when you want to see it, delivered to your TV and only your TV. And it was real. Not a "proof of concept" demo, but a working system being used in at least a handful of customers' homes.