Cultural comment: Into the multi-channel tunnel

Our television habits are about to be transformed, and we are shutting our eyes. By Jane Robins; essay
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The Independent Culture
When the BBC produced a document called "An inclusive vision of the digital age", I misread "inclusive" as "inconclusive". It was a forgivable slip, because the digital age, which starts in little more than a week's time, on 1 October, has been badly misrepresented. It is not an age at all, but a number of possible ages. And it is not really digital, since this suggests merely a new technique for transmitting information using ones and zeros. And the ages soon to be officially launched may well give society a shock as great as that delivered by the combustion engine or the computer chip.

The new sort of television is as different from the old kind as the laptop is from the quill pen. Right now, the language and imagery used to describe it is unclear, almost chaotic - a consequence of the technological advance being so immense and our responses to it so unformed. At the most immediate level the BBC is trumpeting the launch of a new channel or two, and BSkyB is boasting of the cheapness of its new digital deals. But at the broad level, the philosophical level, the global level, the vocabulary is of revolution and a new sort of televisual intelligence.

An industry worth perhaps pounds 70 billion, with the full force of government close behind, is gearing up to promote digital to the skies. But the messages about it are a jumble of sales promotions for neat little set-top boxes, battles for corporate supremacy, Rupert Murdoch buying football clubs, and Ruby Wax in period costume delivering the message on the BBC that it is all tremendous fun: "the adventure starts here". Which is nice to know, but the real question is: where will it end?

For most people, reality will kick in for the first time in their local Dixons with some spotty boy and a demonstration TV set. It will be very mundane, very Saturday afternoon - probably a pre-Christmas promotion of BSkyB's new digital satellite service of 200 gleaming television channels neatly arranged into "the basics" and "the premiums", with the promise that you can get started on this road into the future for a mere pounds 6.99 a month.

It will be tempting to think that this is like the launch of satellite multi-channel television a decade ago, when salesmen went door-to-door around the housing estates selling football and satellite dishes the size of kitchen sinks. But that was different; it was largely about swathes of junk programmes and snobbery - the middle class sneering at the gigantic dishes on the houses where the couch potatoes and the football addicts lived.

Digital will be classless. In the end it will get to everyone, not least because government will eventually switch off the existing analogue signal. But from the start people will realise that it offers swanky upmarket channels like Film 4, and solid middle-class educational channels like BBC Learning, as well as the football, the chat shows and the action movies. It will also replace the video shop: why rent a video with the associated risk of forgetting to take it back, when you can point your zapper at the television and access the film at a bargain pounds 2.99? This new world is not blanket, amorphous, all-hour televisual soup. It is customised television. You work out your preferences and order them up.

That is the immediate, known part of digital. But there is also something much bigger, much vaguer - the ability of your television to be a two- way communication channel. While we watch it, it will be watching us. The technology will exist for Mr Murdoch, or Cable and Wireless, or any number of big companies to know what you watch and whether you prefer Thora Hird to soft porn, and how much money you are willing to spend via your television set. Because while your computer is busy trying to become a television, your television will rapidly turn into a computer.

The possibilities are hard to grasp, and present themselves in strange forms. One BBC video depicts the digital future with a hologrammed head leaping on to a man's desk and telling him that, given his interest in peonies, he might want to know that a new gardening programme is just beginning on BBC 30.

A current BBC promotion has Stephen Fry sitting down to a pleasant dinner with his television set and asking it to "pass the salt please darling". It's amusing for the viewer, but how useful? To some degree it's promoting a myth about digital television akin to the myths about robots that grew up 20 years ago. In the future, we almost thought, the tin man would do the housework, make the beds and put the cat out. Similarly, digital is sometimes portrayed as taking over from the shopkeeper, the House of Commons and the university.

It won't be like that. But it will soon let us order the groceries, check our bank balances, learn languages and book holidays in the Algarve. A garbled debate over whether we will dump our laptops and access the Internet via the television is unresolved. The Internet is a messy, anarchic place that never works quite as it should. But digital television will develop in a more orderly way, because companies have to pay money to get on to it, and care about how they speak to their customers - even if they are eventually working as a gateway to the more confused territories of cyberspace. Also, the screen as viewed from the distance of your sofa needs to be less complex than the computer screen with which you have an intimate eyeball-to-eyeball relationship.

The digital companies will emphasise that our television future is all about choice, but that's like saying that the telephone is a faster way of sending a letter. Digital will change the way we consume television. It will deliver instant gratification, something the British often say they want to resist. "I don't like it and I won't have it," is the likely initial response in Surrey and the Wirral. But that's what they said when colour pushed aside black-and-white. Instead of the imposed routine of having to wait until Friday for Friends or Frasier, American comedies will be on the Paramount Channel every night. Rather than watch the occasional episode of Crimewatch, the opportunity will arise to participate in longer, more frequent Crimewatch Plus programmes.

Do we really want as much of what we want as we like? This is part of a wider slipping of restraints in Britain - instead of disciplines imposed from without, by the church, the state or society, we now have to discipline ourselves. The sloppy will have the chance to become sloppier, never having to switch off on the grounds that "there's nothing on". Control freaks will be masters of the television universe, planning their personal evening schedule from the "electronic programme guide", days in advance if they like, and changing it with every change of opinion on what is the optimum night's viewing.

It sounds a bit like hell. But, like other parts of life, it is about the nation ceasing to act in unison, no longer following guidance from above. Until now, the controllers have scheduled television programmes for broadcast at a fixed time, requiring people to make an appointment to view. Now the programmes will rearrange themselves to suit the audience. When Sky starts up in less than two weeks, The Full Monty will be showing every half hour, and other movies every 15 minutes. News, financial information, cartoons and music will be available all day long. So set patterns of behaviour will break down.

Once, the nation used to sit down to supper at 6.30, now evening meals are eaten at all times. People used to go to bed at 10pm. The bus was replaced by the car, and we started making journeys at any time of day, to suit ourselves. Shops that used to close at six are now open all night. Television is one of the last imposed disciplines to break down - because it has been regulated, ring-fenced and protected. And because it has only now moved from being "spectrum restricted" to "spectrum rich".

Television companies know that in a few years they will never again be able to command a majority audience, that channel loyalties will be replaced by brand loyalties. The BBC will be strong, not because it lays on a decent evening's schedule, but because it has one of the strongest television brands on earth. Channel 4 is busy trying to reinvent itself for the digital age, taking its strengths and converting them into new niche channels.

In the end a different sort of television will both serve and help create a different sort of nation. More fragmented, more instant, less together. Television executives are already talking of fragmented audiences, dividing us not by class but by communities of interest, and by tribe. But the old word for these splintered-off categories is ghettoes. The elite that controls our so-called popular culture has only a slight idea of what we are like, and whether we best divide into 100 tribes or 30, or to how many tribes we can belong. It ought to provoke some hard thinking about who we are and who we are becoming; but it won't. To today's TV moguls, hard thinking means little more than market research.