Left behind

National | iBelieve.com shuts down, broadcasters fight the FCC over digital TV, and other tech news

Issue: "The 2000 vote," Nov. 4, 2000

Closed gatekeeper
The portal is closed. After burning through millions of dollars and giving away tons of Max Lucado books, iBelieve.com ran out of money and shut down. Family Christian Stores launched the site (with investment from Hallmark Cards) as a Christian version of Yahoo and Amazon.com. The idea: Christians would visit daily for their fix of religious content. They would click on banner ads, buy products like Left Behind videos and DC talk CDs, and generate revenue for the site. While the online retailer has logged 2 million visitors since it started up in January, its $30 million war chest wasn't enough to keep it going. When iBelieve couldn't get more financing, it shut down. Even as president Jef Fite announced the shutdown, he boasted that "we have consistently exceeded our business and ministry objectives ... except one: raising additional funding." What went wrong? Sites like iBelieve face a different market than the one familiar to Christian marketers. Christian radio and Christian bookstores dominate a niche that is unserved by mainstream outlets. Big chains like Salem Broadcasting and Family Christian Stores act as gatekeepers, guiding customers' choices. The Web, however, has no gatekeepers. Thousands of religious sites serve every flavor of doctrine and taste, no matter how good or bad. Countless pastors, who would never buy radio time or write a book, post their sermons online. People can go directly to their ministry of choice without a middleman-say, John MacArthur at gty.org or the Southern Baptists at sbc.net. They can also find every cult and nutcase in the world.oBig Christian portals are simply too generic to compete. Broadcasters vs. The FCC
Will you need a new TV in six years? Perhaps, if digital TV rolls out as planned. No one knows what's going to happen, but broadcasters are scuffling with the Federal Communications Commission over the future of their existing channels. Once digital TV comes, stations will be able to serve up sharper pictures, more programs, and even online services. But they'll lose their place in the analog channels 2-83 that we think of as the regular TV dial. The FCC wants to reallocate those frequencies for super-powered car phones, wireless Internet, and other services. Here's where the money part comes in. Broadcasters are supposed to return their analog channels by 2006 or when digital television reaches 85 percent of the market-whichever is later. But the FCC wants to auction off spectrum to the highest bidder as soon as possible. So the FCC wants to charge local stations fees if they keep broadcasting on certain channels, slowing down the sale. Until the switch, stations will be able to simulcast on analog and digital channels. Right now, few digital receivers even exist. So FCC Chairman William Kennard wants Congress to mandate that every new TV set be digital-ready starting in 2003. Broadcasters and electronic makers don't like these plans, since demand for digital TV is slow and few programs are available in the new format. Besides, no one knows how cable TV systems are supposed to handle digital signals. Compared to the boom in PCs and cell phones, the demand for high-resolution TV is downright cold. The format could go the way of AM stereo and the PicturePhone. Confusing changes could be coming if the government forces this technology into America's living rooms. Internet honor system
Stephen King's bold experiment in online publishing is a bigger mystery than the book he's promoting (WORLD, Aug. 5, "King of the Web?"). He started serializing a novel for people to download on the honor system. He asks, but doesn't force, those who read The Plant to pay $1 a pop for each installment. The scheme is teetering between success and failure. Mr. King threatened to stop after three installments if the share of those paying the $1 fee for each section dropped below 75 percent. That share dipped to about 70 percent after part two, then shot back up soon after Mr. King released part three. So he announced a fourth chapter in the pulp thriller of a haunted vine that takes over a publishing company. He hasn't yet announced whether he will finish the story-and at last word, he has written only six installments. Should The Plant make it to the end, Mr. King promises the whole novel won't cost more than $13. Publishers are at wits end trying to figure out how to protect their intellectual property rights. Since any copy-protection scheme is ultimately breakable, they'd like to convince readers to respect owners' rights voluntarily. In the case of Mr. King's book, if the author doesn't get paid, the story won't be finished. "Publicly, I have always expressed a great deal of confidence in human nature," the author remarked on his website. "But in private I have wondered if anybody would ever pay for anything on the Net."

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