Taking a bold turn in remote banking strategy, BankAmerica Corp. is pushing the cable television button.
The parent of Bank of America is forming a joint venture with cable industry giant Tele-Communications Inc., financial software publisher Intuit Inc., and multimedia innovator Home Corp. to deliver financial services directly into consumers' living rooms.
Their idea is to take advantage of the television wires' communication speeds and capacity, which are to be enhanced by a new generation of set- top boxes ordered up by cable operators like TCI.
The venture, as yet unnamed, would be the most ambitious attempt to marry interactive television with banking, mortgages, travel, and other services. Two-way cable had been considered before as an alternative to dial-up or Internet connections to personal computers. But past efforts lacked either technology, the right group of partners, or the necessary financing.
BankAmerica and its allies did not disclose their prospective investments, but H. Eugene Lockhart, president of BankAmerica's global retail bank, said it is making "a significant commitment."
With cable service sold to about 70 million American households, of which TCI companies serve about 20%, the potential reach is at least double that of PCs with modems.
WebTV, a television appliance developed by a subsidiary of Microsoft Corp., was also designed as a PC alternative, but its current reliance on telephone lines makes it slower and more unwieldy than the cable-modem approach.
BankAmerica rival Wells Fargo Bank has modified its Internet banking service to fit the WebTV screen format.
BankAmerica's payoff would come from staking out an early position in an emerging medium, using it to promote Bank of America products while also providing open access to other financial services on the World Wide Web, and earning payment processing fees.
In an interview Wednesday, the day after the companies announced their venture, Mr. Lockhart likened BankAmerica's role to that of American Airlines in its Sabre reservations system, an industry utility. "BofA is like American," he said. "In Sabre you can still buy a United ticket."
Harking back to his role as chief retail banker at Midland Bank in London in the late 1980s, when he oversaw creation of the branchless affiliate First Direct, Mr. Lockhart said the cable concept is "equally significant-for many of the same reasons."
He anticipates other financial institutions and cable operators wanting to be a part of it.
Mr. Lockhart said BankAmerica's early-investment posture is similar to what it did with Meca Software, a competitor of Intuit that it bought jointly with NationsBank Corp. before selling stakes to other financial institutions.
"BankAmerica is the anchor tenant" paying for "the right to have the first look at the consumer," said BancAmerica Robertson Stephens analyst Gary Craft. "This demonstrates how the banking industry can be involved in new forms of electronic commerce."
TCI of Englewood, Colo., tends to push the cable technology envelope. Its chairman, John Malone, once spoke of a "500-channel universe" and tried unsuccessfully to merge with Bell Atlantic.
Set-top boxes that TCI hopes to deploy in the next year, drawing on technology from Microsoft, Sun Microsystems Inc., and others, are now the rage. TCI also announced an extensive partnership in February with Home Network, a Silicon Valley company developing high-speed interactive services for cable boxes.
"We look forward to offering our customers the full benefits of the broadband cable network, including in-home features and transactional convenience that have not been available to consumers before," said TCI president Leo J. Hindery Jr.
Intuit-maker of Quicken financial management software, operator of the rapidly diversifying Quicken.com Internet site, and provider of the cable venture's bill payment and presentment component-has also run up against the PC limitation.
It is satisfied with Internet activity, said Mark Goines, senior vice president of the consumer division. "But frankly, it just doesn't reach enough households. To really revolutionize people's financial lives, we have to meet them where they are."
Mr. Craft, the analyst, said that with the cable gambit Intuit would be "reaching Joe Sixpack, the couch potato."