THE FUTURE OF TELEVISION

The next cultural revolution is coming soon to a living-room near you. But what will it all mean to the average viewer of 2016? Meet Bob and Ginny Maclaren ...
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The Independent Culture
DRIVING INTO town, the strangest sight that meets one's eyes are the abandoned superstores. Every town and city in the country is blighted by them: brickwork bulging, car parks littered with rubbish, weathercocks tilting at crazy angles, holes gaping in the steep brown faux-medieval roofs where the shingles have fallen off, exposing the rafters.

The reason why is that in Britain in the year 2016, the superstore shopping ritual is as obsolete as going to the well for water. And the reason why that has happened is because of what's happened to television.

We are visiting the Maclarens in their nice detached 1990s house on the outskirts of Dorchester, a few hundred yards from the ring road with its abandoned Tesco's. No big surprises on the outside: two cars, a well-tended garden. But in the living-room there is nothing that one recognises as a television.

Instead there are two separate installations. At one end of the living- room, covering the entire wall, is the projection screen which the family uses to watch what can no longer be called "the box": European League football matches, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Wimbledon finals, newly released videos. All these cost money to watch, but although everyone grumbles, they pay up: viewed on such a huge screen, with cinema quality, it seems fair value. And with sports events, there is an added attraction to watching at home: the zapper allows you to choose the angle of view, degree of close-up, and so on - though this can lead to fierce disputes between the children.

The other apparatus in the living-room, sitting on its own pseudo-Queen Anne table by the wall, is a linear descendant of the personal computer, with keyboard, mouse, loudspeakers, and a built-in video camera. And it is this relatively modest, familiar-looking gizmo that has been responsible for the demise of the nation's superstores, and for other dramatic social changes, too.

In the frenzy of competition in the 1990s, the supermarket chains devoted billions of pounds to making their stores more enticing, with broad aisles, 18 different types of cart, free samples, coffee bars, creches and so on. They worked hard to sustain the notion that the new store was a substitute community centre, replacing the traditional centres they had helped to destroy, as well as a place to get groceries. For a few years in the mid- 1990s, the campaign seemed to be working. Then, thanks to the combined effect of all these complementary technologies - digital, cable and satellite television, telecommunications, and the personal computer with its access to the Internet - all their effort was undone.

Home shopping in its early, test-bed versions back in the late 1990s was little more than a clunky way of getting in contact with mail-order firms. But once the supermarkets came on-stream (Tesco taking the plunge, the rest following pell-mell), the idea rapidly grew wings. Suddenly shopping was transformed from a chore into a game. With the zapper one could readily compare prices for the same item at different stores, cruise the aisles (wearing the virtual reality headset) for bargains, or merely scan lists, dump the items chosen into a virtual shopping basket and charge the bill to one's account. In theory one could shop around at will, buying each item at the site where it was cheapest. In practice, the stores, competing furiously as ever, worked hard to instill loyalty, offering discounts when the total reached a certain figure, and lavishing money on their programs - with music, elaborate graphics, and celebrities introducing special bargains. Only KwikSave's drab and functional guide to its cut- price baked beans and spaghetti hoops served as a reminder of the infancy of the form. Once ordered and paid for, groceries were shipped from the local warehouse direct to the door within the hour, by fleets of miniature refrigerated vans.

It was home shopping that had given television the kick in the pants that everyone knew it needed. Throughout the 1990s the potential for mixing and melding the various different technologies grew clearer. Digital television was launched in the United States in 1995 and in Britain three years later, with analogue finally eliminated (in the teeth of protests from the terminally nostalgic) in 2008. Each analogue channel, which is in the form of a wave, occupies a relatively broad band of air. Digital, which consists merely of a thin stream of noughts and ones, occupies far less air space - so that once analogue had been done away with, the 500 digital channels which had long been foreseen finally sprang into life. But still the question remained: what were they for?

Vast quantities of ingenuity were expended on trying to find the answer. The interactive television providers searched high and low for the killer application or "killer app" that would unlock digital TV's commercial potential, by seizing the public's imagination. Video on demand, or VOD, had looked promising, but a genuine on-demand service required huge computing power, and the amount of competition from the terrestial, cable and satellite networks (as well as the humble video shops) made it commercially risky. Several firms went bust attempting to make it work.

The BBC launched its "expanded channel concept", enabling viewers to continue watching, say, a Test Match or the Olympics on another channel, while on the main stream the news or other regular programming ensued. The same facility allowed viewers to follow up, say, a repeat of Pride and Prejudice with a biographical programme about Jane Austen. This service pleased the Beeb's hard-core of serious, middle-class viewers, but failed to halt the long slow slide in ratings: except on rare occasions, less than a third of the population watched the BBC's output with any regularity.

The Corporation had striking success abroad with its 24-hour television news channel, deploying its outstanding journalistic talent to challenge the hegemony of CNN and Sky. At home, however, the channel's impact was relatively small: news junkies were already well supplied by the profusion of daily newspapers and specialist magazines, which were all now available on-line as well as in print, and with frequent updates.

Meanwhile, predictably enough, the digital channels filled up with the sort of low-grade pap familiar long ago in America: endless rummagings through the archives, innumerable B-movies, channels dedicated to cheap quiz shows and cheap chat shows, to evangelical religion, to cartoons, to cooking and gardening. It was extraordinary how rapidly people became accustomed to this profusion: in any given week, a dozen new channels might be launched, but would cause barely a ripple in the nation's consciousness.

In fact, if anything, this steady lowering of the mean quality level of television's output caused the medium slowly to be displaced from the centre of the nation's life. Far from converging into one splendid new (but never clearly imagined) device, uniting all the virtues of all the media at its disposal, television fragmented into a multiplicity of specialist, dedicated forms, reflecting the increasing fragmentation of the culture. Every living-room was now dominated by a giant home screen - but often, in the Maclarens' home as elsewhere, it stood silent.

Meanwhile, in their separate offices, Bob and Ginny Maclaren grind through their work - he is in advertising, she is a university lecturer, but nearly all their work can be done from home, using e-mail, vid-phone, and all the other facilities routinely available at the work station. All the children have sets in their rooms, of course. Jimmy, the 11-year-old, is addicted to virtual reality games, and rarely is seen with the hood off. The twin 15-year-old girls are preoccupied with fashion, and subscribe to all the on-line fashion magazines, which bring them fashion shows from around the world as they happen, as well as unlimited archive material about fashions of past years, biographies of hot designers and models, and so on. Last week Jemima won an on-line competition about fashion history; the prize was a live chat over the vid-phone with her favourite designer.

The lives of the Maclarens are saturated by electronic media. But it was only with the lift-off of home shopping - and the launching of dedicated shoppers' work stations, which for the first time did not look out of place in the home - that this became a palpable fact in people's lives, drastically altering their patterns of movement, and modifying quite rapidly the nature of their towns and cities. As the out-of-town stores were one by one boarded up and written off, life returned to the traditional centres in the form of new cafes and clubs and pubs and meeting places: the social vacuum caused by the loss of the shopping centres was rapidly filled.

Now, nearly 10 years after digital's launch, television has burst its shackles: no longer merely entertainment or information, it has begun to change the way people live for the better. This is the sort of development that, in general terms, was predicted by the Independent journalist Hamish McRae in 1994 in his book The World in 2020. McRae suggested that the position of electronics technology in the early 1990s was similar to that of the aircraft industry in 1950. By that date, he wrote, "It was possible to see that aircraft would take over from ships as the main means of long- haul passenger traffic ... But while it was easy to imagine that air travel would become the norm for the relatively rich, it was harder to envisage the social consequences of its becoming extremely cheap." As he pointed out, those consequences were enormous, and transformed all our lives.

The same has turned out to be true of television. Wasteful commuting time has been drastically reduced, de-clogging the roads; the shopping chore has been turned into a painless sedentary task; children take for granted that all the knowledge in the universe is available within the four walls of their rooms, and the ones with brains and pestering parents actually make some use of that fact. Of course, there are the victims, the pathetic cases, young and old, who succumb to a sort of televisual bulimia, gorging on the networks for days or even weeks on end, unable to stop.

But their sad appetite is not what bothers Bob Maclaren. Like many others approaching retirement, the regret he harbours is a more obscure one, and one that he finds almost impossible to explain to his children. He remembers a sort of golden age, when television - laughably crude in technological terms - functioned as a family hearth for the entire nation; when at any given time, half the population would be switched on, not merely to some pay-per-view football game, but to a particular sitcom, or soap, or even a full-length television play, demanding real concentrated attention. Such a focusing of millions of minds on one programme could give the nation a vivid sense of itself - of what it found funny or disgusting or deeply moving - that no other medium (except radio, in its heyday) could achieve.

That's all gone now: the vastly expanded choice means that everyone's watching something different. It's probably for the good, but Bob Maclaren can't help feeling nostalgic.

That's why tonight he's off to have a look at a new club that has just started up in the ruins of the Tesco down the road. A few old farts he knows in the town had the idea, and he chipped in with 20 Euros. They've done up one of the offices there as a rough approximation of a 1960s living- room, installed a 19-inch black-and-white televison, and set up a small analogue transmitter. Tonight's the launch, with an irresistible schedule: The Magic Roundabout, Zoo Time, Richard Baker reading the news, Till Death Us Do Part, Cliff Michelmore fronting Tonight, and winding up with Dennis Potter's ancient classic, Stand Up Nigel Barton. Huddled together in that cosy monochrome glow, they're going to have the time of their lives. !

TOMORROW'S WORLD: A GLOSSARY

Analogue TV: arch. Fading away in a living-room near you. A 20th- century gadget that received flowing waves of Simon Dee and the Daleks from the ether. Antique as the smell of Bakelite and burning dust.

Back-up channels: neol. 1. HyperCeefax: will enhance your viewing experience with additional information in an on-screen window. Call up fascinating statistics during Euro 2004, or Wendy Richard's CV as she emotes her way through EastEnders. 2. A channel screening material related to a programme you've just watched elsewhere. See the episode you missed last week before the current one begins. Watch Seven Samurai after Omnibus on Kurosawa.

Convergence: vulg. Millennial nerd buzzword. What happens when the TV, computer, radio, phone, fax, e-mail, Internet and CD player get together. Hardware manufacturers are desperately competing to produce a dominant strain of this hybrid, therefore synonym for divergence.

Digitisation: elec. By satellite, cable and ground transmitter, TV programmes will be sent to you as a sequence of binary numbers that resolve into the 14th series of Murder Most Horrid. By 1998, there will be hundreds of digitally broadcast channels available to the friendless consumer.

High-definition TV: prob. Images so real you might as well go there. So far, the technology hasn't taken any conclusive form: screens of the future may be composed of a flat tube, LCD display or millions of tiny mirrors.

Interactive TV: mod. If the TV does transmogrify into a multimedia communications and entertainment facility, then the referee will know exactly what you think he is. With the use of on-screen menus, Martyn Lewis could skip straight to the dog story, and the guilt of the butler could be established while Miss Marple is still kicking ideas around.

PPTV: abbr. Pay-Per-View Television, for which you are billed as you watch, will have an emphasis on live sport and new movies. The success of BSkyB's PPV screening of the Bruno v Tyson fight indicates that this will be an important part of future programming. The BBC's planned all- day coverage of Parliament is unlikely to be a Pay-Per-View service.

PCTV: abbr. First stage of convergence, and available now in Dixons if you want to watch Kilroy when you should be working.

Set-top box: colloq. What is it? About pounds 500, though Prime Minister Blair may make you a present of one. A device that unscrambles digital signals for viewing on your old analogue set. Without this, the Lottery numbers would be 1101110 1010110 every week. It can be balanced on top of your satellite decoder, VCR and 12-volume copy of Radio Times.

Widescreen TV: superl. For the bigger picture of the 21st century - perfect for watching those Cinemascope classics, or coverage of Baroness Thatcher's state funeral.

Taboo channels: improp. Not Red Hot Dutch, or that lovely fruity drink, so not half as interesting as it sounds. Analogue signals are so expansive and wavy that they need these buffer zones between them to avoid collision. Digital signals are so lean that they can skewer these areas without causing interference, something that allows hundreds of them to cluster where our four analogue channels now transmit.

Themed channels: obsc. Grouping together huge swathes of stuff far too dull to be shown on proper television: the Backgammon channel, the Stingray channel, etc.

V-chip: obs. Censorship device that prevents your kids watching Margi Clarke. As the V-chip's cut-out mechanism is linked to the nine o'clock watershed, on-demand services will render such controls impossible.

Video-on-demand: uncert. One of the most vaunted aspects of digitisation is the notion that any film or show could be dialled up from the back catalogue. Unfortunately, there's some doubt whether the technology will prove commercially viable. Near-on-demand is a more imminent prospect. With this service, the viewer could tune into a programme playing in an overlapping loop, rather like catching a Tube on the Circle Line. If you came in late from the office, you wouldn't need to worry that your favourite programme began 10 minutes ago, because in another 10 minutes it would begin again. MATTHEW SWEET

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