Tune in to the last of the dinosaurs

Channel Five has come too late for the revolution in our TV viewing, writes Hamish McRae
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OK, so if we are going to watch the new Channel Five schedules released yesterday, what will we not watch instead?

The point is simple enough. There is a finite amount of time that people are prepared to allocate to watching a screen. That amount of time may be far higher than anyone could have envisaged a generation ago, but it is no longer rising. So the people who are lured by Channel Five will be lured away from everything else.

But, of course, Channel Five is the last of a breed: a new channel designed to win mass audiences. We are on the brink of the digital revolution, the technology which, with satellite and cable, will make not five, not 50, but thousands of channels available. Indeed the whole idea of a channel may disappear, if we move to a world in which people watch what they want, when they want, rather than having to watch something chosen by someone else, at the particular time it happens to be broadcast.

To this cornucopia of television is added the mass of audio-visual material coming on to computer screens through the Internet. Expect the quality and availability of that to be transformed over the next five years, as modem speeds rise, the technical capability of the system improves, and the volume of information and entertainment soars.

Time spent at a computer screen is obviously time spent not watching television. A couple of recent studies have looked at the viewing habits of people connected to the Internet. Unsurprisingly, Internet homes watch less television; and not just adults. Internet children also spend less time watching it. So conventional television channels face a double squeeze: there will be much more material and rather less time to watch it. Something has to give. What will that be?

There are two analogies that help us glimpse the future of television. One is cinema; the other is magazines.

Anyone who can think back to the Thirties, Forties or even early Fifties will recall the dominance of cinema. Many of the palaces of the movie industry, built mostly in the Thirties, still remain in our high streets, but are either converted to bingo halls or are multiplexed. Between 1950 and the early Eighties there was a steady, inexorable decline in cinema attendance. True, there has now been a recovery; and true, the total revenue from films, including video releases, television sales, receipts from merchandise and so on has buttressed the fall in income from bums on seats. But from the perspective of 1950 there has been a generation of decline.

Alongside that decline has been a shift in power, away from the studios and towards the stars: they have become brands in themselves, and extract a higher proportion of the reward. Apply these factors to the television industry and you can argue that it is facing a similar future: a long, inexorable squeeze on its revenues.

Already advertisers are aware that it is virtually impossible to use television to reach busy people, the very people who tend to be high earners and so particularly attractive to advertisers. The pressures on time to watch any particular programme are likely to grow, so advertisement revenue will tend to be squeezed still further. And not just squeezed; it will also be spread more thinly, as programmes proliferate, and revenues tend to come from subscriptions.

Meanwhile more and more value will be extracted by the stars. The stars in television may be a cup final, a "must see", time-critical event, rather than individuals. But the point is the same: the value will be in the programme, not in the channel. We don't care whether Blind Date is distributed by the Beeb or ITV. And when there are a thousand channels, we will care even less.

Now look at the magazine model. Go into a newsagent's and look at the immense degree of specialisation in the magazine area: you want to know about the best dives in the Maldives, so you find several mags on scuba diving; or you want to buy a second-hand Bristol, so you fish out the ones on classic cars. Now and again, the magazine publishers spot a new market: the "new bloke" world of FHM and Loaded is the great fashionable discovery of the last couple of years.

The infinite variety comes not just from the fact that the mags are intensely specialised: they also come from all over the world. That is coming in television. I was told yesterday that we are five years away from being able to get a high quality television signal over a wireless phone link. So in theory you could go into a hotel in Chicago, plug your mobile phone into the side of the set and watch any programme from anywhere in the world. You could watch the US scuba-diving channel back in the UK, just as you can pick up a US-based magazine on the subject.

Sure, we still buy a national newspaper, just as we will still watch mass-market television. Sure, many of these magazine titles are owned by a handful of giant publishing empires. But entry to magazine publishing is much less closed than television is. As the latter opens up, the variety of the magazine rack will hit the screen.

There is a further change coming. With that variety and, maybe a little later, the ability to time-shift (ie to watch a programme at the time of our choice, without a video-recorder), we will become our own programmers. Just as we allocate our own reading time, we can allocate our own viewing time. We will fast-forward the boring bits, dump the studio discussions, flip over the irritating adverts. Think of the shift of power from programmer to viewer that would result.

So as we welcome Channel Five let's remember that it is a dinosaur. It will be the last example of a mass-market channel to be started in the UK; the last new channel where the content is decided by a handful of highly paid people sitting in a plush office; the last which we will watch simply because it is there.