Utopia Theater: Hold Them Accountable!

I realize that accountability is passe, what with no heads rolling for no WMDs and a Medal of Freedom award going to a guy who presided over, among other "achievements," 9 billion of your tax dollars going missing in Iraq according to the non-partisan GAO (General Accounting Office). But being an old-fashioned kind of guy, I still believe in holding people accountable for their words and their deeds—myself included.

What set me off on the upcoming rant was a Consumer Electronics Association emailing for its March 15th HDTV Summit in Washington, DC, which I hope to attend. One of the featured panelists, said the email, will be Forrester Research analyst Josh Bernoff. Let's just say Bernoff and I have had "words." In fact, CEA president Gary Shapiro dressed Bernoff down in public a while back for his clueless "analysis" predicting a bleak future for HDTV.

From what I have seen, the job of a research analyst is to make outrageous, sweeping, headline-grabbing predictions—the more outrageous and inflammatory the better—and if they don't come true, so what? The mainstream press is attracted to such prognostications like flies to you know what, and if said predictions prove to be incorrect, as they often are, no one's held accountable.

Many of these analysts—especially on the business side—have little understanding of the subject of their analysis, though they understand "business." So when you read an analysis of why General Motors is having financial trouble, you'll read every reason but the most obvious—that most of their cars suck and they're ugly, too!

I read an analysis of the success of OfficeMax's "Rubber Band Man" commercials in the Wall Street Journal, crediting the campaign's writers, producers, cinematographers, even the person who booked the air time. Guess who wasn't even mentioned? Right! The probable great-great grandson of a former slave who actually stars in them, and whose on-screen appeal is most of what makes the campaign a success! Some things never change.

So it didn't surprise me a few years ago when Bernoff predicted a $2 billion digital-download music business by 2007. As of January 2005, Apple's iTunes, by far the most successful download operation, had sold 250 million 99-cent tunes worldwide since its launch in the Spring of 2003. Do you think eight times as much revenue will be generated by downloaded, crappy-sounding MP3s in 2007? I bet Bernoff my left ball the answer would be "no."

Throwing the digital baby out with the bathwater, Bernoff also predicts an end to CDs and DVDs. "Get out of the plastic business," he's warned the recording industry. "CDs, DVDs, and any other forms of physical media will become obsolete," he states with utter certainty in stories written by gullible journalists with sub headlines such as "Study: CDs may soon go the way of vinyl." Never mind that sales of vinyl, though small, are actually on the upswing, even as CD numbers sink. We've been hunters and collectors for tens of thousands of years and all of a sudden, in half a digital generation, Bernoff thinks we'll be happy with nothing and pay again and again every time we want something. "By 2007 or 2008, CDs will be something only old people have," Bernoff is quoted as having said. Wanna bet?

Bernoff makes his predictions based on the behavior of American youth, and on their answers to survey questions. They're doing much of the downloading (though a recent survey I saw shows "oldsters" 30-54 actually downloading more than the kids), and they're the future, right? Wrong. Kids grow up. Tastes and behaviors change. Had Bernoff surveyed the same kids and asked them how often they wash their bed sheets, his advice would probably have been headlined, "Industry analyst warns Procter and Gamble: Get out of the Detergent Business! Soap Going Away by 2010." You can lead an analyst to numbers, but you can't make him think.

As for high-definition television, in a report he co-authored in 1998, Bernoff predicted "the demise of HDTV," according to a ZDNet News story dated December 9, 1998. "No one has been able to demonstrate that high-definition makes more money than today's TV model," Bernoff is quoted as saying in the story, in which he also predicted that lo-rez digital TV, not HD, would be successful. Continuing to put his head in a low-definition place, Bernoff pontificated, "There are three industries that have to support HDTV to make it fly: broadcasters and cable networks, consumers, and consumer-electronics manufacturers, but HDTV is bad for all groups." Got that? HDTV is bad for consumers—just like organic produce because it costs more for the "same" head of lettuce.

Bernoff told a Sacramento Bee reporter two years ago, "I don't believe there ever will be mass adoption [of HDTV]. . .it has the potential to be very successful among an elite group of consumers. But it's something only a small number of customers will be excited about."

How obviously clueless and wrong was that? Had Bernoff ever seen Joe Six Pack watch his first NFL game in HD? I doubt it. The problem with Bernoff and his "analyst" brethren is that intangibles such as professional pride, peer pressure, competitive edge, and just plain love—love of broadcasting, of progress, of "better," of what makes people human and not numbers on an accounting ledger or a stupid consumer survey—none of that computes in his drab world. It's the same reason analysts wrote off Apple. When they did, I bought Apple stock at around twenty bucks a share, because I knew they'd innovate, and innovation means better, and better sells. As I admonished Bernoff, "Don't ever bet against quality." Yet Bernoff's back on a CEA HDTV panel to spout his numbers and soulless extrapolations.

He's not the only one who needs to be held accountable for grand-scale cluelessness. In a June 2002 article, CNBC Washington Bureau Chief and Wall Street Journal contributor Alan Murray displayed both ignorance and stupidity, writing, "The problem with HDTV is that it keeps failing, over and over again...And it will certainly fail in 2006—the deadline Congress set for getting HDTV into 85% of American households." Now, did Congress set such a deadline? Of course not, but Murray was so anxious to see HDTV fail, he didn't know the difference between HDTV and DTV, nor did he understand what the mandated DTV transition was or meant. He needs to be held accountable.

Another of my favorite bonehead quotes is from Lynne Bartos, an analyst from Ipsos-Insight, who claimed a few years ago that consumers will not see enough of a difference between regular TV and HDTV to make an immediate switch. Not see "enough" of a difference? How many of your friends seeing your HDTV for the first time had that reaction and how many went, "holy crap, I gotta have that!" She's got to be held accountable, though of course she'll use the word "immediate" as her out.

I've saved the best and most annoying for last. Back on March 1, 2001, when HDTV was so fresh it was still wet, in a Business Week Online story entitled "A Way Out of the HDTV Mess," Jane Black and Olga Kharif wrote, "There no denying it: HDTV's promise is dead. And no act of God or Congress is going to bring it back."

Black and Kharif went on to suggest that Congress demand the spectrum be returned so it can be used for "third generation" wireless networks! No HDTV for you and me. Sounds like the two were shilling for—or at the very least had their ears twisted by—members of the telecommunications industry covetous of the bandwidth. Whatever it was that made them write such damn foolishness back then, they, too, need to be held accountable. Black's still writing for BWO. Do you think she ever apologized for writing that drivel? I doubt it.

Meanwhile, I knew that HDTV, like color TV 50 years ago, would succeed with consumers, just as I knew we'd invade Iraq and find no WMDs. I didn't expect to be made CIA chief, but if Bernoff, who's been wrong more than right, is on a panel, why not I? That's what I want to know. Someone needs to be held accountable!