It is not just whether we want 24-hour news, a sports channel devoted solely to, say, golf, or even access to a gigantic film library so that Jules et Jim can be squirted down the wire into our home at the touch of button. It is much more. The quality of the vision and sound will be much better, more akin to a film. And if we want to, we will be able to "talk back" to whoever is sending the information. Of course we will not be able to have a quick word with Martyn Lewis about the way he has read the news, but we will be able to answer quizzes or bet on horses.
All that is technically possible, and much more. This week the British TV industry put its plans on the table to bring it to us. First, BSkyB said it would create 200 channels in the second half of next year, and yesterday the BBC explained its own plans to exploit digital television. These announcements were the first tremors warning of the seismic change about to hit the industry.
Up to now television has been driven by producers. We get what the industry wants to give us. Most people in the UK manage with four channels, plus some rented videos for movies. Sure, with cable one can have 40-odd channels. But that is nothing compared with what will be available within the next couple of years, and certainly by the end of the century. Suddenly the whole industry is becoming consumer-driven. Think of the magazine rack at WH Smith: strings of specialist titles covering everything from scuba- diving to soft porn. Though the bulk of the sales are still dominated by a few dozen long-established titles, it is relatively cheap to launch a magazine. Any company with pounds 250,000 or so can have a crack at starting a nationally distributed monthly. That means an entrant can suddenly hit upon something new that attracts the consumers (think of all the men's health and lifestyle magazines launched recently). Consumer signals - what we want - feed through to what the producers deliver.
The same will happen with television. Quite quickly we will go not just to several hundred channels but perhaps to a couple of thousand channels. But beyond that lies the prospect of there not necessarily being channels at all - that television will become more like the Internet, a vast global library with the only limit being (unlike on the Internet) the size of the bill to get what you want.
So what will be the shape of television a decade from now? Here it is in 10 easy steps.
One, most people will view television on a set with a wide screen and will be on a digital standard. They will not watch TV on a PC, which will still be more of a work/study/ communications tool rather than an entertainment medium.
Two, to quite a large extent, we will still watch TV when it is transmitted rather than at the time of our choice. That is partly because of habit, but also because some of the big draws in sport lose their value very rapidly if they are not transmitted in real time.
Three, television will not become a truly interactive medium. If we want to move money around from one bank account to another, or pay our gas bill, we are much more likely to use the best established of the interactive media, the telephone. It is not natural to go over to the TV and use it to order a pizza, book an airline ticket or any of the things the TV industry is dreaming up. We pick up the phone. The phone companies are rich, tough competitors and are rapidly developing their own services.
Four, not just here in Britain but in most developed countries, half a dozen big TV networks will still capture the lion's share of the audience. That is what the BBC thinks and I suspect that is right, for two reasons: in the US, where there is a longer tradition of cable TV, the four main networks still capture between two-thirds and three-quarters of the hours viewed; and the film industry has shown that people like glitz, "high production values" in the jargon, which demand their product reaches a mass audience.
Five, 24-hour news, the new service announced yesterday by the BBC, will be a growth area, but will not fulfil its advocates' dreams. The BBC is certainly a serious player in world terms in this field. By coincidence, I spent a day last week at its principal rival, CNN in Atlanta. CNN has a 16-year head start for domestic news, its international service has been running for a decade, and it is an impressive operation. But it takes the BBC very seriously: BBC World, the new TV news programme run by the external service, is the only other TV station on the CNN studio monitors. That is ironic because BBC World has yet to find a way of getting itself to regular American viewers. But 24-hour news, done well, is expensive, and in the last few weeks other US networks have announced they are launching such services. So while this is a growth area, it is one in which supply is growing faster than demand.
Six, TV will remain a national medium, in the sense that Britons will not watch French or German TV very much, even though that will be available free or cheaply. This is partly because of language, but more because of culture. Sport and some music programming may cross the cultural barrier for adults, but that is about it. Within the English-speaking world there will be quite a lot of cross-border trade, but I fear it will be mostly Brits watching US programmes (as they watch US films) rather than the other way about.
Seven, while we will see lots of specialist channels, most of these will be low-budget and have low audiences. That is because TV will remain principally an entertainment medium rather than an education or business tool. It is fine to imagine that hundreds of channels will create space for, say, local community stations. They will. But, like local newspapers, these will have limited audiences and will have to be produced cheaply to survive. As for business, how many employers want their staff to spend the day watching TV?
Eight, television will come to take itself less seriously. There will be more cheap and cheerful stations like Mirror Group's L!ve TV, famous for its topless darts and News Bunny. I personally would welcome that, for it always seems to me that television is ridiculously earnest compared with newspapers and magazines.
Nine, while we will pay for set-top boxes to convert to digital, there will be great resistance to paying much more for TV services in general.
Finally, I think television will become less powerful. We will still, or some of us will still, watch a lot of TV. But the diet will be wider and richer and the power of any one small group of people to dictate what we watch will be greatly weakened. In a world that is rightly worried about the power of the media, that is surely a bonus.Reuse content