TELEVISION will be born again.
TV in the '70s has just about had it. Except for Fred Silverman's bid to pull NBC's fat out of the furnace, nothing much will happen now. In fact, for its first three decades, television has remained basically the same, except for such cosmetic transitions as going from black-and-white to color and from a live entertainment and information source to a font of filmed and tapes packages.
Now, however, a vast matrix of incipient technologies promises not just a few new wrinkles in television but the possiblity it will become a whole new medium.
The Hope of All Humanity! - again.
We asked 10 very informed sources to speculate on what TV in the '80s will be like. Some - like White House media adviser Barry Jagoda, broadcast historian Eric Barnouw and former NBC president Pat Weaver - responded verbally; others wrote responses in conjectural, satirical or, in one case, pontifical terms.
If you put them all together, you get some idea of what lurks ahead.
America has always been in love with the future. The national mood toward television as it is may be one of resigned disenchantment, at best, but the prospects for what is still to come are potentially exhilarating.
Multiple-screen homes will be the rule, not the exception, in the oncoming media renaissance. It will involve such earthly wonders as cable television, pay cable channels, two-way cable channels, fiber optics (a kind of super-cable), station interconnections via satellite, direct satellite-to-home transmission, over-the-air subscription ("Pay") television, video cassette players and recorders, video disc players, giant-screen receivers, and so on.
What all this means, basically, it that the number of program sources will greatly multiply and so will the uses to which the television screen is put. We will look at television in a new way, as not only a source of news and diversion, but as an aid in learning, shopping, banking, and citizenship.
Through television, we may be able to attend meeting of the board of education, the city council, the state legislature, Congress or the United Nations General Assembly.
But dabbling in possiblities is really too easy, and it can raise silly hopes. By now, according ot the futurephiles of the past, we were already supposed to be a "wired nation" (through cable) and TV sets were supposed to be flat giant murals. What really happens will depend on the health of the economy and the degree to which the broadcasting industry allows change to occur. Right now Congress is waiting to see what the industry will permit in the rewrite of the 1934 Communications Act.
Even the forecasts of the decidedly pragmatic sound promising, however. William J. Donnelly, vice president for new electronic media at the Young and Rubicam ad agency, wrote a prospectus on TV's '80s called "The Emerging Video Environment" and among his predictions is that cable TV will reach a 30 percent peneration of American television homes by 1981. Donnelly considers 30 percent the magic snowball number (as it will with TV and then color TV), the point at which a new media truly makes a national impact.
There are 12 million cable subscribers in the U.S.; Donnelly predicts between 20 and 26 million by the end of 1981. He also thinks there will be 1 million video cassette units at work in American homes the same year, and 1,000 satellite earth stations for video signals. Satellites are important to the future of television because they provide transmission of signals at a much lower cost than the current telephone long-line method. By satellite, Donnelly writes, "It costs the same to send a signal from New York to Philadelphia as it does from New York to Los Angeles," and it's cheap.
What largely hampers television now is the sophisticated mob rule of ratings and the desirability of drawing as many hundreds of millions of people as possible so as to sell those millions to advertisers at a low cost-per-thousand rate. What cable and satellite interconnection of cable systems promises is at long last liberation from this mentality. Television will be able to serve a galaxy of minority interests.
What will happen to plain old, dull old, Tee Vee? Donnelly thinks it will hardly disappear. "We believe that there will always be advertiser supported televiosn designed to reach large market segments and significant blocks of consumers."
If anything, the increased competition should make commercial and public television better. And yet the broadcasting industry can be counted on to stubbornly discourage advances. "We should be extremely wary of dismantling or curtailing a system that functions as well as our present one before we have a very clear idea of the social, political economic and human consequences of whatever we choose to replace it, "bleats Leonard H. Goldenson, board chairman of ABC.
What broadcasters will try to make the public believe is that cable or pay TV will of necessity "replace" free TV - which is not true - and that people will have to pay for what they now see free. Of course, anybody who'd pay to see "The Love Boat" deserves it.
Meanwhile, NBC's corporate planning department has taken a non-hysterical look at TV's future in an in-house report called "Broadcasting: The next 10 years." Among its predictions:
By 1985, when the U.S. population has reached 234 million and the median age advanced from the present 28.8 to 31.1, television advertising revenues will reach $14.1 billion a year.
Advances in "microprocessors" (tiny transmission units) and mini-cams will make possible not only expanded live news coverage from remote locations, but also "instant commercials" with which local stations will lure still more advertising money away from print media.
"Fully half" of the entertainment programming in prime time of the '80s will consist of "long-form programs, mini-series, special events and specials"and "the notion of broadcast seasons wll have faded away," with new programs introduced year-round.
There is naturally a dark side to the milennium. The expansion of choices offered by cable TV may just turn out to mean a multiplicity of mediocrities, we may have all-news and all-sports TV stations as there are now such radio stations, and cable channels may end up representing various commercial formats rather than public interests.
Beyond that, there is the fact that more, not less, of our daily lives will in some way involve the television screen. We will be surrendering more waking hours to its vicarious experience and giving a machine greater control over our perceptions of one another and of the world. Technicians will be the new aristocracy of this mega-media age that could see the triumph of form over content.
One can anticipate problems and still be excited by prospects. The first house on the block to be hooked up to cable and whatever refinements and attachments come with it will be like the first house on the block to get a TV set in the late '40s and early '50s. There will be an ominous alien presence in the living room again. It will be something new and, in time, something new to kick around.
Television is dead.
Long live whatever comes next.