Unleashing the digital divide

The changes in television will change global society as we lose something that unifies a nation
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The Independent Culture
LET'S START with an easy prediction: digital television will sweep the world. This weekend Britain became the first country to have a terrestrial digital system, OnDigital, and we have been able to get satellite digital from Sky for six weeks. As a result Britons are getting an early glimpse of the new normality, television which will offer three new things: a much better picture, many more channels and the potential for interacting with the box, in particular buying products through it.

I should begin with a confession: I am an atypical user of TV. In the last couple of weeks I have watched: a bit of CNN in the States, the BBC World Service news on the Heathrow Express, an American movie where the hero went around machine-gunning hundreds of people, Eurotrash (which has gone off since Jean-Paul Gautier left), and Bloomberg news on the Internet.

So I'm afraid I won't be much of a customer for the digital people. I'm convinced, none the less, not only that digital TV will be a wild success but also that it will utterly change both the industry and the way society uses television. Here's why.

Successful new technologies divide into two groups: those that save people time and those that occupy their time. Sometimes we want the first: the car, the plane, the phone, the mobile; sometimes we want the second: cinema, spectator sports, video games. Television has been the supremely successful occupier of time developed this century, filling three to four hours out of 24. Now it is about to do this principal role much better and, in addition, may just begin to perform the other role of saving time as well.

The first innovation, the much improved picture, obviously means that it will become a much better entertainment medium. Less obviously, it will also tend to differentiate the TV from the personal computer - for the new digital standard will rapidly become the wide screen, in the style of a cinema picture. Most experts envisage the television and the computer converging. However, it is just as likely that the reverse will happen. We already use the two boxes in completely different ways. They usually sit in different rooms and we sit at different distances from them. We crouch close to one and peck away at a keyboard; we sprawl away from the other, pausing occasionally to reach for a drink or the remote.

When the picture becomes larger and better, we will sprawl even more. The PC will itself develop and will continue to compete for people's leisure time, becoming faster, easier to use and even more competent. But the defining distinction - that one is principally a leisure technology and the other a work/hobby technology - may well widen.

The second innovation, the multiplicity of channels, is even more important than the improved visual quality. We are moving to a world where there is virtually no technical limit to the number of channels we can have. It is not just a question of the 30 channels of Ondigital: we are racing towards a world where there will be hundreds, eventually thousands, of channels.

That changes the nature of television from a producer-driven culture to a consumer-driven one. What we watch has up to now been decided by a tiny handful of executives. Of course they are guided by ratings, and that has forced them to choose programmes that a large number of people will watch. They have had to dumb down.

In future it will be possible to create products that only a few people want, provided they are cheap enough to produce. Even if they are expensive, it may be possible to create them, provided the target audience is either prepared to pay or is sufficiently attractive to advertisers.

This consumer-driven culture will have a number of other effects. In a world of thousands of channels, how will we pick our way around and find what we really want to watch?

For people tremendously interested in, say, golf that will be easy. There will be a dozen or more golf channels and word of mouth will be sufficient to enable people to differentiate the gems from the rubbish. For more mass-market products it will be harder. Here I suspect that global brand names will become much more important.

Those brand names will not necessarily be well known companies. Look at OnDigital. The two famous companies behind it, Granada and Carlton, are not using their own names to promote it. They are using a much stronger national brand, called Ulrika, to do so. Think Granada and you think motorway service stations; think Ulrika and you think mid-market, thirtyish, laddish glitz.

Over the next few years anyone who can achieve global recognition will find the world beating a path to his or her door. Sports people in particular will become much more important, for sport is the killer product for television. Not only is it global, cross-class, cross-income group and cross-culture: it also requires immediate real-time delivery.

Sporting brand names - Manchester United being a prime example - also become more valuable for the same reason. But global distribution networks may become less powerful. If there are only a dozen or so channels, owning one is very important. If there are thousands, then the content becomes much more important than the delivery mechanism. You see why Mr Murdoch wants Man U.

I also expect the multiplicity of channels to create opportunities for global niche brands. You are reading one at the moment. But The Independent is a brand which, while known around the world, is not easily available outside Europe. If there were thousands of TV channels, it would be easy to establish global reach: our stalwart readers could get their fix whenever and wherever. Already they can on the Internet, but it is slow and cumbersome; television would become one more delivery mechanism and probably a more convenient one.

To do that, though, television has to become interactive. This is the third great change associated with the shift to digital. You can in theory have interactive analogue TV on cable systems, but they don't really work very well. TV home shopping is tiny. Once digital TV is universally established, the possibilities for TV commerce widen, for it becomes cheap and simple to establish a return path.

The TV companies hope that we will buy lots of things through them. It will certainly become very easy to buy; it may become a way of saving time as well as wasting it. Watch a music video, click on a button, a CD arrives at the door next day, and your monthly account is duly debited. But only the market can decide whether digital TV at last makes television commerce a success. It may be that the rich and middling-rich who will make or break telecommerce won't watch enough television to make this a runner. The one lesson we have learnt from Internet commerce is that you cannot predict what types of product or service will show explosive growth. Who would have predicted that a 500-year-old product, the printed book, would become the most successful item to be sold over the Internet? I am sure, however, that having the return path will change the nature of television. We can, so to speak, talk back.

That is one reason why the changes in television will change global society - or at least reinforce changes already taking place. Divisions within countries seem to be becoming wider, as people become segregated by income, interest and education. Divisions between similar groups of people in different countries have, by contrast, become narrower. Professional people around the world live in similar houses, drive similar cars, wear similar brands of clothes and increasingly read similar publications.

Television has up to now been a unifying feature, for people in any one country tend to watch the same programmes - if only because they have had little choice.

Now we will have that choice. That is wonderful. But we will lose a nationally unifying force. Instead of having only a handful of channels to unite the country in a common culture, we will have to rely on brands like Ulrika.