Coming soon on Channel 499: Starvation

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The Independent Online
IT IS early 1994. You arrive in New York on a short trip from London and before venturing from your hotel room you flick on the television set - just to see what's on. Bad mistake. The rest of the day, perhaps the whole visit, is lost.

The problem will be this: US cable companies are close to producing new 'digital compression' technology to enable television sets to receive no fewer than 500 different channels. Grazing from one to the next with the remote control, perhaps giving five seconds to each, would take 42 minutes. By that time, of course, whatever was on when you started will have changed.

Pioneering the revolution is Tele-Communications Inc, the Denver-based owner of many city cable systems, including one here in Washington DC. The company says it will introduce the 500-channel service in some areas from next January. The 'compression' process means all the channels can be squeezed on to existing cable networks.

To some it seems an appalling prospect. Already, most cable companies offer 50 channels simultaneously, and the task of finding something watchable among them is daunting enough. And now the nightmare is to be multiplied by ten?

What, for instance, would happen to the television listings in the newspapers? Carrying programme details for 500 stations would require a separate section. Instead of turning to print, viewers will come to rely on interactive on-screen guides, with programmes of different channels bunched together in categories such as hit movies, romance soaps, male fashion, fitness or news.

And will it really be possible to fill all these channels? Even with 50 to choose between now, the offerings can sometimes be, at best, some way out on the fringe. Americans already have merchandising channels selling the latest unusable kitchen gizmos and Court TV with real-life drama from the criminal courts.

According to one newspaper poll, however, at least some Americans are excited about the prospect of such television overload and have lots of suggestions for new specialised channels.

One reader said he would pay extra for a channel dedicated solely to showing English cricket. Others wanted a 'how to make your own jewellery channel', a lonely- hearts channel for singles, an X-rated pornography channel and a channel exclusively showing re-runs of The Brady Bunch, a 1950s sitcom.

One man proposed launching the 'Starvation Channel'. He did not make clear whether he had in mind personal dieting or the Horn of Africa.