Leading Article: Digital television needn't be dim

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The Independent Culture
AS WITH all revolutions, the one thing of which we can be certain is that the digital television revolution will not have the consequences we expect. Which is just as well, because what might be expected is that if viewers are given more choice, they will watch more television, and British viewers already spend more of their time in front of the box than those of most other nations.

The excited futurologists of the marketing departments of Sky and ONdigital tell us that, if you feel like half-an-hour of comedy, you will have it, on tap. And it will be funny, because it will be Friends, or Grace Under Fire, or Newsnight - whatever turns you on. Or you will be able to choose the camera angles as you watch football, and play your own replays to establish definitively that the referee is in the pay of the other side. Or you will be able to put live coverage in a box in the corner of the screen while you browse the Internet.

The buzz-words of the digital age are saturation, segmentation and nomadicity. The new media will be everywhere, but targeted and portable, so we will be able to watch what we want, when we want, where we want. So we are bound to spend all our waking lives in front of screens.

Or are we? The fact is that the technology already exists for watching comedy whenever you want: the video-recorder. It may be a lot easier to press a few buttons on the set-top box than to remember to tape something and then to find it three weeks later. But you will have to pay. So digital TV will make a difference, but who can predict what will happen if computers, the Internet and television sets all get mixed up in a soup of saturated nomadicity? Who would have predicted that one of the effects of the Internet would be to boost sales of books, the interactive medium of the 15th century?

It is possible that we will watch about the same amount of television, but get more out of it. Or even that we will watch less, because it will foster specialist interests that we will want to share "in real life" with other enthusiasts. After all, the average time spent watching television has declined slightly in recent years, despite the advent of video-recorders, satellite television, cable and Channel 5.

One important effect that can be predicted is that it means the end of the shared national experience of watching the same programmes at the same time, and talking about them the next day. But let us not get misty- eyed about this phenomenon of the second half of the 20th century. If digitalisation means a less homogenised culture, that can only be a good thing.

More choice means less chance for nanny-broadcasters to give us what they think is good for us. It may mean watching more rubbish. But people have a right to choose their own dumbing-down, and it is to be hoped that more choice will mean more discrimination.

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