Stan Hey: The great entertainment download

'Did you get the same sort of phone-call that I received last week?'

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You know, the one with a cheery sales-person greeting you in one of those oh-so-trustworthy regional accents - primarily Geordie, West Country or Irish - that the call-centres rely on to convince you that a good deal is heading your way? The deal in question was the opportunity to upgrade my rented television to a whizz-bang digital model in time for Christmas. Before I could reply, the spiel was in full flow from a ready-made menu - "multi-channels", "wide-screen", "DVD compatible", "set-top box included".

You know, the one with a cheery sales-person greeting you in one of those oh-so-trustworthy regional accents - primarily Geordie, West Country or Irish - that the call-centres rely on to convince you that a good deal is heading your way? The deal in question was the opportunity to upgrade my rented television to a whizz-bang digital model in time for Christmas. Before I could reply, the spiel was in full flow from a ready-made menu - "multi-channels", "wide-screen", "DVD compatible", "set-top box included".

Because I work at home, and am therefore a prime target for such calls, I have developed over the years several methods for dealing with the attempted sales-pitches. Depending on the scale of pushiness of the caller, these responses can range from polite but dogged resistance, through to made-up stories of recent bereavements or personal injuries to create the impression that this is indeed a bad time to take on a loan. If neither of these styles deflects the predator, the fail-safe mechanism kicks-in and I revert to my non-trustworthy heritage of a Scouse accent and tell them where to shove their offer.

This method has only been deployed twice in living memory - first against a time-share operative who was so insistent that I had to come out to Tenerife that he was prepared to pick me up at home. Secondly when I had to "get medieval" with a double-glazing rep calling on a mobile phone from just outside the house with his work-force parked in a van behind and ready for action.

The television-upgrade caller was more of a problem. She was polite and vulnerable in the way of some call-centre workers who cannot hide the tyranny of their workplace or the bleak pressure they are under. (Or is this just a new variation on the sales pitch?) Either way I still wasn't interested, but I felt that I owed her a reasoned explanation. It went something like this.

"Look, I'm sorry, but I'm a writer for television, or at least I used to be. Most of my stuff was done in what is now being called 'the golden age', when the industry was run by programme-makers not motorway caterers, financiers and equipment-hire companies. You could go in and see a producer, talk through your ideas and come out with a commission for a script. There were no 'readers', no 'script executives', no 'audience profilers', or 'budget accountants' at this meeting, or indeed involved in the process at all. There were only four channels then, and that was quite enough for everybody, because you could produce quality programmes at a decent price, and the viewers could always find something that they liked to watch. But now..."

She'd hung up, probably convinced that I was not a fit person to be granted charge of any sort of rental technology, or indeed a butter knife. Had the caller stayed on the line, I could have developed my argument. We seem to be living in an age when the breathless pursuit of novelty, usually in the form of entertainment technology, resembles the mania generated in the 18th century by exotic foreign spices and flowers, and investments in the South Sea Bubble.

The simple act of possession seems to be sufficient for many people, who can boast about multi-channel television, MP3 down-loaders and WAP technology phones, without necessarily being able to enthuse about the content. Do the 70-odd television channels promised by the callers and the hucksters actually have enough of what you really want to see? And how do you find the time to even find out if there is anything you want to see? Some of the television programme guides are as densely printed as a military-engineering manual.

A quick skim through the Christmas schedules of the cable and satellite channels reveals the following gems:

* no fewer than 10 back-to-back episodes of Animal Hospital with Rolf Harris

* an old episode of George and Mildred clashing with Liz and Phil, otherwise known as the Queen's Speech

* a programme about the "secret life of dogs"

* or the same film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, that I watched at Christmas on our 10-inch, black-and-white telly nearly 40 years ago.

I know the free-marketeers believe that you can fragment the audience to the nth degree and still sell them something, but surely there's a limit? Our adoption of the American model of broadcasting throughout the 1990s was totally misplaced, because they have a huge, geographically spread population and we don't. Now, the next big idea is at our throat: "technology first, programme content to follow".

I'm not a Luddite or a Scrooge, but I do remember Christmases when the whole family sat down for such highlights as The Morecambe and Wise Show, or Top of the Pops or a dreamy Preston Sturges film. The aim was to hit the collective consciousness. Now the illusion of choice that the television swamis offer just isolates us.

Last week, the Government announced a new White Paper on broadcasting, outlining the future regulation of what is being called the "age of convergence" - telephones, televisions, radios and computers, all sharing in the Great Information and Entertainment Download. A new super agency is to be created to police the airwaves, but the deregulation of the late 1980s has already let too much slip away. The only real choice left to the television consumer is the power of the off-button. But as an old-time writer, now re-styled as a "content provider", I would say that, wouldn't I?

There's this guy who three years ago put a few thousand into a with-profits pension of a long-standing mutual company. At first things go fine. But then the company sends out letters saying they're not going to honour some guarantees they made on annuities a while back. These clients fight back and take the company to court. The company says it will win, and even if it doesn't, it still has the money in reserve to keep everybody else happy. But then it turns out, after they lose the case, that they don't have money in reserve. So they try to sell the business to bale themselves out. No deal! So then they close down for new business, leaving their clients in the dark. But our guy goes after them. I see it as Grisham-ish, Tony Soprano homage. What do you mean, you don't believe it?

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