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Off We Go'

Posted On: 1/20/2004

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This editorial was written on Dec. 17, the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' famous first powered flight. And today is perhaps the best possible day to note some interesting parallels between the coin-operated music and games trade and the American aviation industry. Far-fetched? Not entirely. Both industries were launched by ingenious garage inventors a century ago. Both have known magnificent heights (no pun intended). And today, both are bogged down, arguably for similar reasons, in several key instances.

Back to 12-17-03: to commemorate today's historic occasion, President Bush flew down to Kitty Hawk, NC, and made a speech (standing on a bare stage, unprotected, in a pouring rain). Also, a group of scientists and historians attempted to recreate the famous flight. They deployed a replica aircraft, built to the exact specifications of the original Wright Flyer. Unfortunately, both the speech and the Flyer failed to lift off the soggy ground.

The President vowed that America would continue to lead the global aviation industry. But the fact is, U.S. aerospace leadership is under serious challenge. Europe's Airbus sells more planes than the United States' Boeing. American aircraft makers have stupendous new technology waiting in the wings - or perhaps we should say, waiting "for" the wings , but it's too expensive for the current market so they're basically doing minor upgrades of old products. Besides, air passenger traffic is still way down compared with pre-9/11 volume, and many airlines are in financial trouble. As for America's troubled space program, the limitations of the Space Shuttle become more evident with each launch.

Sound familiar? The coin-op amusement industry has also ceded leadership, in this case to the $9 billion home video game market. The amusement industry has also experimented with revolutionary new technologies that, in many cases, seem too costly for wide application, and thus remain on the shelf. Like airplane makers, amusement machine manufacturers also face flat sales and many forms of increased competition (even without home video). Finally, coin-op's player base has contracted sharply from its peak, comparable to the shrunken airline passenger base.

So, how do we get this bird off the ground again? Here's where history becomes really instructive. It's worth noting that the U.S. aviation industry went through its first major slump from about 1910 to 1927, when European firms, prompted by World War I, grabbed the lead in aircraft design, manufacturing and operations. Americans stubbornly continued to regard airplanes as risky toys until Lindbergh's solo Atlantic crossing. That flight provided aviation with an amazing feat, plus a charismatic hero and a forceful proponent in one. Thirty years later, the U.S. space program similarly broke its slump and achieved liftoff, thanks to another glamorous hero, John Glenn, and another charismatic proponent, President Kennedy.

Industry veteran Joel Friedman is fond of saying that what today's jukebox business needs for a full revival is a "champion." By that he means a visionary and charismatic person who could lead the entire industry through his or her technological and marketing savvy, and through personal influence, as did the giants of the 1930s-'50s. Friedman may be onto something here, not just for jukeboxes but for the entire amusements industry. Where is our Walt Disney, our Cecil B. DeMille, our General Sarnoff, our Steve Jobs?

Today, on the centennial of powered flight, President Bush declined to become the new champion of American aerospace. He did not call for any revival of manned missions to the moon, as some had speculated he might. Nevertheless, the wild blue yonder still beckons. Likewise, the next frontier of pay-for-play fun still lies before us'waiting, perhaps, for some hardy 21st-century pioneer to show us the way.