People involved in cable television are understandably gun-shy when they are asked to predict the future. We have been accused of "blue-skying" in the 1960s when we painted rosy pictures of the cornucopia of services cable would soon bring to urban areas.
A federal freeze on cable in major cities and a nationwide credit crunch have delayed those developments for 10 years. Cable TV is only now, and a careful look at the uses communities are making of cable tells a great deal about the future of the industry.
Two basic facts about cable television make it unique among communications media and will determine its shape in the 1960s.
First, cable TV's ever-growing channel capacity expands services far beyond the limits of over-the-air broadcasting. In most cities, the usable air waves are already full, carrying five to seven broadcast stations; today's urban cable systems can offer 36 channels of entertainment and other services. With such capacity, cable television can provide not only more programming, but entertainment and services targeted to special audiences as well.
Second, cable TV is directly responsible to the needs of the individual communities it serves. Cable systems operate under franchise from local governments and are directly dependent on local subscribers for their revenues. So communities have an opportunity to shape local cable television service from the very berginning, to influence programming on a continuing basis, and to develop original uses for the medium.
Four thousand cable systems now service American communities. The programming and services they offer - and are developing - are as varied as the communities themselves. Local educational institutions from North Adams (Mass.) Community College to the University of Pennsylvania offer classes to audit or for credit to nearby communities; local governments from Livingston, N.J., to San Jose, Calif., program information channels with city council agendas and meetings; a channel in Findlay, Ohio, offers high school students the opportunity to produce their own programming about events at their school.
Senior citizens in San Diego can find information on local social services and advice on how to use them on a special cable channel; six local governments in Ohio share a computer tie-in through their cable systems - a service only one would be able to afford without cable TV. "Shalom Corner," a New York cable series, offers nursery-age Jewish children Yiddish songs, Bible stories, and a general cultural background, as well as programs dealing with food, health and personal habits.
Nearly 900 newer cable systems have the capacity for two-way television communication, and experiments with two-way service and underway around the country. The most ambitious is the Warner QUBE system in Columbus, Ohio, where subscribers can talk back to their television, expressing their opinions on various issues and seeing their community's votes tabulated immediately on the screen. In Reading, Pa., TV studios in senior citizen centers, public schools and government offices permit a regularly scheduled spilt-screen dialogue among the senior citizens, the mayor, and high school students. In Dayton, Ohio, a new system is using its two-day capacity to provide subscribers with burglar and fire alarm service.
Cable television is not a monolith. If the industry is allowed to compete freely and is now swallowed by one of the massive communications monopolies, there will be no simple nationwide formula for the cable TV services available to cosumers in the 1980s. That's as it should be. The public, through a free, fair and competitive marketplace, should determine the shape of local community communications services. If they are allowed to, without government interference, cable television's only limits will be the limits of man's imagination.