10/14/2010 03:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Asking the Most Difficult Questions About Interactive Media

The technology innovations of the last 15 years have wreaked havoc on the media industry -- turning upside down the way we gather, distribute and consume information and entertainment. But from where I sit -- as CEO of Canoe Ventures, the company that is helping to lead the interactive transformation of cable television -- we're only just beginning to understand the implications of the digital media transformation sweeping across our nation.

Are our policy makers in Washington up-to-speed on the implications and ramifications of the digital media revolution? Who can they turn to for unbiased, clear and concise briefings about digital media technologies and the policy conundrums that they are creating? What about the cultural implications of all of us being always on and always connected? What's the right balance?

The answer, I believe, is to create a conversation among three orbits that seem to rarely interconnect and intersect in our country... a meeting of minds from the worlds of business, government and academia.

That's why I thought it was important to underwrite a conference last week at The University of Virginia called "Media Policy and Ethics in the New Attention Economy" to bring together academics, business leaders and policy makers to begin a dialogue on how we create effective, appropriate policies that are being driven by the digital media transformation.

Take for example, the issues we are grappling with at Canoe Ventures. We're developing new interactive applications to make television more engaging for the audience and more effective for advertisers. In the not too distant future you will be able to grab your television remote control -- the ubiquitous "clicker" that all of us have -- and with a few clicks get a product sample, ask for a brochure or express your opinion in a poll. All of this from the comfort of your living room sofa or favorite easy chair. In the near future, viewers will have the ability to use their remote control to do things like pick an MVP in a major sporting event or vote for their favorite contestant in a reality show. The audience may eventually have the ability to decide which news segments they want to watch and in what order. Exciting stuff, don't you think?

Consider that, by the next presidential election, interactive features could allow networks to conduct instant polls via the TV set-top box. Those results could be tabulated and displayed in real time -- perhaps during or right after a presidential debate. Instead of a random sample of a thousand people, millions or even tens of millions could participate and have their voices heard. Neat stuff, you say.

Yet, as we began to outline these possibilities last week in Charlottesville, Wyatt Andrews, the brilliant and highly respected Washington correspondent for CBS News, quickly pointed out that the instant feedback used to pick an MVP or the next American Idol can't replace the sophisticated science behind political surveys. There is a difference, after all, between what is essentially a popularity contest and the science involved in tracking the underlying trends that motivate voters. Wyatt, of course, was absolutely right. We have to be thoughtful.

If viewers can pick and choose the news segments they want to watch, what impact will that have, for example, on how much foreign news we consume, which television ratings show is much less popular than domestic news? That's why people in business need to hear directly from journalists and academics -- and it's a conversation that needs to happen now. Change is happening rapidly, and every year, experienced journalists like Andrews are leaving the business, in many cases forced out by the financial pressures on traditional media companies.

This technological shift also has created opportunity. Without the Internet, Arianna Huffington and her colleagues wouldn't have been able to create The Huffington Post, which employs more than 100 people. At our conference, Mike Allen, chief political correspondent for Politico, said he believes the future of journalism is "sunny." Thanks to technology, said Allen, "more people are consuming more news in more ways more often." Both The Huffington Post and Politico employ some of the best journalists in America -- many of whom migrated successfully from print to the Internet.

And as we continue that migration -- from paper to digital, from select professional voices to many varied sources -- we must ask and try to answer the most difficult questions. Only then will we preserve both freedom and privacy while spurring innovation and facilitating broad participation.

For my part, last week's conference is just the beginning of what I hope will be a deep and productive dialogue among academics, policy makers, journalists and business people about what the changing media and technological landscape means for our nation and our democracy. I hope that you'll join the conversation.