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Eisner flips through the future

Michael Eisner, always competitive, always trying new things, conducted a little test recently.

A contest between an entertainment Master of the Universe and a mere television remote control. The quest: How long would it take him to zoom through 500 channels?

He aimed the zapper like an Uzi.

Eight minutes later "without stopping and without regard to content" Eisner was done.

Walt Disney's chairman and chief executive officer still isn't sure who _ or what _ won.

He "saw" 500 channels but doesn't remember a thing.

That was Eisner's cautious message to a convention of promotion and marketing execu-

tives on Sunday. New-age TV _ with its predicted 500 channels banded along a "information super-highway" _ will be exciting, but exhausting and expensive, as well.

A high price in dollars, but also in the quality of programing.

"It's appalling to consider programing 500 channels," Eisner said to the 37th annual convention of PROMAX, promotion and marketing executives, and the Broadcast Designers Association. "Will 500 channels be a boon or a bore?"

While television may be on the threshold of explosive new technology _ such as multiple channels aimed at narrow interests, interactive television and computer-TV links _ Eisner insisted that television will only survive if it remembers the secret of every medium since Homer wrote the Odyssey: Well-told, well-crafted stories.

Eisner also predicted that the 500-channel super-highway may seem near because of constant predictions, but will take years.

"I'm not sure I even know how long it will take," Eisner told the St. Petersburg Times after his speech. "A very long time. Maybe 20 years."

Eisner, who forged the new Disney empire of movies, television and theme parks since he joined the company in 1984, said he didn't want to be a "dinosaur executive" but said that new television faces significant hurdles before it's a reality in the living room.

Not only will crafting a 500-channel system and interactive television be prohibitively expensive, it will force the entire television industry to change the way it does business. He predicted that even if 500 channels are available, only 10 will be dominant. Programers must guard against bland shows, always searching for new ways to entertain, Eisner said.

When he looks down the super-highway, Eisner said, television, no matter how enticing, will not cocoon people in their homes with lives centered around a "lighted box." Instead he hopes it will spark an interest in the world.

"No matter how good the camera angles, there is no substitute for being there," he said.

To prove his point, he speech was topped by a five-minute Disney review with more than 75 dancers, indoor fireworks and the characters of Beauty and The Beast.

While his beast danced on stage, Eisner put aside thoughts of new-world TV to ponder real-world box office receipts.

His first question to an aide was about rival Universal's blockbuster summer movie, which will soon be converted into a ride at Universal Studios, just a few miles up the road.

"How did Jurassic Park do?" Eisner asked.

Enough about TV of the future. Eisner has a movie about the past to worry about.