Next Year, 500 Channels

In the beginning there was broadcasting: three mammoth networks reaching for the widest possible audience with massappeal programming. Then came narrowcasting: a score or so round-the-clock cable channels catering to special tastes. Now, thanks to a technological leap, the number of such specialized channels is about to soar into the hundreds--each targeted at even tinier slivers of the population. Call it microcasting. For better or worse--and there's much to be said for both-it's TV's next age.

Covering the dawn of the microcasting era last December, most of the print press missed what it all means. Stories dutifully reported that Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), the nation's largest cable company, had announced that a new technology called digital compression will enable it to deliver 500 channels by as early as 1994. But that left a very large question unaddressed. What sort of programming will fill all those channels? As it turns out, programming entrepreneurs-anticipating the channel grab the way homesteaders sensed Oklahoma was the smart place to be in 1889-were quietly staking out turf months before. Currently in the works are 24-hour channels devoted exclusively to soap operas, game shows, sitcoms, crime programs, Westerns, war movies, love stories, how-to lessons, senior-citizen affairs, golf, automobiles, even infomercials. "Television," proclaims TCI president John Malone, "will never be the same."

That may be so, but it hardly fills in the picture. Will we be getting different TV or just more TV? What will access to all that excess cost? How will anyone keep track of what's on? Do viewers really want so many options? Then there are microcasting's social consequences. If nothing else, the mass networks provide those shared cultural experiences-a "Roots," a moon landing, a Michael Jackson interview-that bind a heterogeneous people. Will Marshall McLuhan's global village fracture into so many self-fixated tribes? While all this is terra incognita, there's no shortage of educated guesswork.

Initially, in the mid-'90s, the big movie services will gobble up large chunks of the new channels. "We'll run the top-10 movies with staggered starting times," says TCI executive Brendan Clouston. "It'll be like having a multiplex in your home." As more cable space opens, hordes of specialized channels will gradually come on line. Some will be supported by advertisers with carefully customized pitches. ("Hi, pardners! Nothing goes better with the Cowboy Channel than hot Quaker Oats.") But most will retail their programs on an a la carte basis: viewers of those channels will pay only for what they watch. Even so, many televisionaries expect monthly cable tabs to expand as dramatically as the choices.

To help viewers navigate all those channels, several companies are scrambling to introduce on-screen, interactive program guides. At the click of a remote control, up pops a menu of categories (sports, comedy, music, science fiction and so forth). Choose one and on come detailed descriptions of all that category's available shows. Nonetheless, the restless will still channel-surf and, with so many channels vying to arrest their gaze, program content could undergo a not-so-subtle redesign. Eli Noam, director of Columbia University's Institute for Tele-Information, envisions shorter, fasterpaced shows with "modular" story lines and instantly recognizable characters. Says Noam: "It will become easier to tune in to the middle of a program and still follow it." In other words, more quantity will produce less variety and complexity. "We're going to see a lot of what we've seen," predicts cable analyst Paul Kagan, "before we see a lot of what we never saw before."

As for the big commercial networks, already victims of shrinking audience shares and siphoned-off ad revenues, the onslaught of microcasting may ultimately spell extinction. Or they could be reduced to taking nightly turns on the air. The 500-channel universe, says former NBC programming head Brandon Tartikoff, will demand a "radical rethinking of how we [the networks] do business ... or all of us will be nibbled to death by the piranhas of encroaching new channels."

Now let's widen our lens. Charles de Gaulle once observed that a country with 246 cheeses could not be governed. The same, perhaps, might be said about a nation with 500 channels. With the dissolution of network power, what happens to the national consensus on divisive issues (e.g., civil rights, Vietnam) that the networks' nightly newscasts have done so much to shape? It's a frustrating paradox. As the medium becomes more democratic by offering greater choice, it will no longer provide a common forum for the sort of pluralistic debate that helps make a democracy work. Les Brown, the founder of Channels magazine, goes so far as to envision "programming grouped and focused by ideology-liberal, conservative, ultraconservative, religious right, libertarian, and so on." The social impact could be even more unsettling. Consider the videophiles of the 21st century, ensconced in their all-electronic caves, inundated with viewing alternatives each irresistibly personalized. Will they have the time-or the inclination-to interrelate with anyone outside their channels of interest?

Not that the picture lacks a bright side. Even the gloomiest futurists concede that the new television could bring families closer. Since it would satisfy so many of our entertainment and informational needs at home, family members should find themselves gathered in the home more often (if not before the same set). Some also argue that the vast diversity of the networks' replacements is to the good of all. Life with the tube, they say, will become a multiplechoice proposition in which everyone can assert their individualism.

As convincing as that theory sounds, it has its scoffers. The most prominent is George Gerbner, dean emeritus of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School of Communications. "The TV audience has never clamored for diversity," says Gerbner. "Their attitude is: 'I know what I want and I want more of it.' Thus if you're nuts about Westerns, and there's a Western channel, that's all you'll tune to. The irony is, viewers get more diversity from watching one network channel than they'll get from 500 specialized channels." Gerbner also worries that the high price of multicast TV, especially the channels that instruct and illuminate, will damage those who can't afford-yet most need-to plug into it. "It will further widen the information gap between the rich and the poor," he says.

One thing's for certain: in television, technology is destiny. Indeed, another innovation called fiber optics already promises to make digital compression obsolete. In the next decade or so, a single fiber-optic strand folded into a telephone or cable line could be delivering thousands of channels to the home. Think of it: the Orthodontics Channel ... the Cross-Dressing Channel ... the Queen Di Channel ... the Shopping Mall Surveillance Channel. Will that make us a happier people? Given TV's habit of subbing quantity for quality, it's not hard to imagine the next Bruce Springsteen topping the charts with: "5,000 Channels (And Nothin' On)."

We shall see.