The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

September 1998

by Terry Borst & Deborah Todd

filed 25 August 98 Copyright ©1998 alt.screenwriters

Another one bytes the dust, you could call this story. As summer winds down, we report the fall of one of the greatest American icons to ever grace the interactive scene, Broderbund Software. Only a few months ago in this space, we discussed the company’s transition from mom-and-pop operation to major publishing house. Having run a furious race in the educational content world with the likes of The Learning Company (TLC) and Mindscape, Broderbund finally succumbed to Wall Street merger pressures, and was purchased a few weeks ago by arch-rival TLC.

The interactive world will never be the same.

There is a sense of sadness about this news among veteran New Media writers and designers. Broderbund was home grown. Broderbund brought us great titles, from the highly creative Living Book series to the ur-convergent title Carmen Sandiego to the artistic and commercial blockbusters Myst and Riven. Each title was a landmark in the history of interactive game play for kids and adults alike — and it was these kinds of titles that first enticed a number of traditional film and TV screenwriters into trolling the uncharted waters of New Media.

But competition has put the squeeze on. And the old axiom “If you can’t beat em, join em,” seems to have been written strictly with Broderbund in mind.

In June we reported that TLC had gobbled up Mindscape, among others, to give it an edge that only money can buy. No sooner did the ink dry than TLC seemed to be at it again, making the shocking move of buying long time competitor Broderbund to the tune of $420 million. This purchase nudged it above all other competitors, creating the largest publisher of educational software in the world — an astonishing transformation, given its rivals Cendant, who swallowed up Sierra On-Line and Davidson (and is now embroiled in an accounting scandal that has rocked Wall Street), and Microsoft, which we all know owns nearly everything else in the free world.

Let’s recap the gluttony. Since last November, TLC has been gorging itself. They started with Creative Wonders, the kid’s division at Electronic Arts that produced such mainstay titles as Sesame Street, Schoolhouse Rock, and Madeline (yes, the very same character the recent movie was based on — more convergence for you). After the holidays, they moved to the second course and bought Mindscape in March, which is known for such titles as Comptons, National Geographic, Printmaster, and Mavis Beacon. Hungry for some fun as summer loomed ahead, TLC paid a cool $15 million to P.F. Magic, creators of the charming Dogz and Catz titles. Weeks later they shelled out $45 mil for Sofsource, which is in the high school and college education biz. Looking for the big enchilada on a hot summer night, they gulped down Broderbund after Independence Day.

If this all sounds like Reader Rabbit must have had something very right, let us remind you that TLC was once a tasty morsel itself, when SoftKey consumed it 3 years ago for over $600 million. At that time, the move meant TLC had to nix the deal they had in the works to merge with… Broderbund. (But SoftKey liked the name so much, they decided the entire combined company should be called TLC.)

And so we come full circle.

What does this mean for writers working in New Media? About the same as what traditional screenwriters face in the studio world. Big studios control the content. Big companies control the game. To some degree, the entertainment and educational software business of the ’90s has aped the movie business of the ’80s, where a host of mini-majors such as Island and Orion eventually collapsed, unable to compete in the mega-movie arms race. As we know, the disappearance of those financing sources has narrowed the types of movies being made. So too can we expect a narrowing of new media CD-ROM titles: the chances that used to be taken won’t be any more.

With digital convergence and telefusion poised to change the face of the interactive and entertainment worlds, perhaps the long awaited marriage between Hollywood and the high-tech world is closer than anyone thinks The logical next step, at least in the converging world of entertainment and interactivity, is that the conglomerates on either side start gobbling each other up, praying mantis style.

A few years, some forecasted that the interactive world would end up with a half-dozen or so huge “studios” controlling the content, mirroring Hollywood. Perhaps they’ll integrate Hollywood, and we’ll end up with six big “studios” controlling it all…

Stay tuned…

Written by tborst

August 25, 1998 at 1:46 am

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