Leading Article: Future is culture fed through cable

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The Independent Online
AT first sight, it seems to concern only lovers of classical music in Nottingham. But the innovative agreement signed between the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Diamond Cable, a local cable television company, is an indicator of a shift in the way British broadcasting and telephone services work - a shift that will eventually affect most of our lives.

The deal makes RPO educational workshops available by cable to local schools, and will soon allow the orchestra's concerts to be seen live by cable viewers. It is an example of the way in which technology is reversing what many people had come to think of as an inexorable downward cultural trend. In the past, the economic facts of broadcasting forced television companies to devise programmes to appeal to millions of people. The arrival of cable has changed this. Programmes can now be aimed at much smaller audiences of only a few thousand.

This approach, which pundits have already dubbed 'narrowcasting', is helping to right an odd imbalance. At present, the airwaves that carry television and radio signals are highly congested, and free space is scarce. Yet at the same time, a network of telephone cables in every city lies unused for hours on end, whenever the subscriber is not making a call. In the long run, it makes more sense to send music and video to households by wire, and to devote the scarcer radio spectrum to the much smaller amount of information carried by telephone.

The next step will be to abolish channel schedules altogether. Instead of waiting for a given programme to appear, viewers and listeners will be able to choose a programme from a menu, dial their cable company, and have it piped into their home at the time they want. This may mean the death of both the video and record shop. But it is a step that will make our culture richer, and help to dispel the pessimism prompted by the first half-century of television.