SERIOUS PEOPLE, the ones who walk about under little dark clouds worrying about the "energy crisis" and the future of western democracy, should pay more attention to our new toys. Serious people, if they think about toys at all, are mildly embarrassed by the ridiculous gadgets and gizmos which the rest of us love to buy.
So serious people will groan in disbelief when I announce that America's new toy this season is the tool for cultural revolution. This season, we are buying a democratic toy which will liberate us all.
Seriously. This new toy will eventually free every American family from the wretched, mind-deadening laff track of network TV. It will give voice and image to a thousand new ideas across the country, not to mention tens of thousands of unknown entertainers. It will invigorate the meaning of "free speech" in America and retard our drift toward the centralized "mind control" imagined in Orwell's "1984."
I am talking, of course, about the new home video machines -- the video cassette recorder and its potent little brother, the video disc player. For some years hence, serious people will probably continue to regard these machines as frivolous luxuries, until one day they realize that these toys have become the new necessities of modern life. Most American families, rich and poor, will own one or both of them and these machines will lead us into a new epoch, nothing less, one which encourages many of the American values that now seem threatened.
DOES THAT sound too grand? Only a bit premature. Right now about 700,000 families own a video tape recorder, one of the competing models which Sony and RCA and other companies are selling on TV. Every normal person I know would love to have one, but most of us still think it's too much money to spend on a mere toy, $500 to $1,000. Most of us will get over our reluctance. Anyway, as the market expands, the price of video recorders is expected to drop, just as television sets became cheaper as their popularity increased.
In the long run, the video disc player may prove to be more popular than the video tape recorders and, thus, more revolutionary. These disc machines, which Magnavox is now test-marketing in Atlanta and other manufacturers are readying for retail, are like phonographs, only they produce a TV show -- light and color and stereo sound. Think of a record which gives you high-fidelity "Fleetwlld Mac" and also shows you "fleetwood Mac" performing on your living room TV screen. Or think of "La Boheme," if you prefer. Or "Hamlet." Or "Animal House."
Everybody has different estimates of how quickly these devices will permeate America. After World War II, television itself took less than 10 years to reach 85 percent of America's homes. Perhaps these video auxiliaries will take somewhat longer, but maybe not. As these home video machines spread through the nation, they are going to generate new markets for independent programming and knock the corners off the "mass audience" which network television has created. And who will weep for the three national networks (or for the advertising industry which controls them) if millions of Americans simply tune out the drivel and become their own program directors?
Once enough families own a home video machine, that will stimulate independent outlets to produce and sell a variety of tapes and discs. Each of us will enjoy more control over the feedong of our own minds. More freedom to pick and choose or say "no" to the homogenized network stuff. More power to select the information and entertainment which each family consumes; more variety, more quality, more leverage over what the children see.
Families who feel threatened or offended by the mindless, enervating creations of ABC, NBC and CBS will have alternative prime-time "channels" to choose. Eccentric viewpoints, too provocative for the nervous networks or cowardly local stations, will be able to gain access to the most important public forum of our time, the TV set in private living rooms.
I AM CONCENTRATING here on one technology only because it is already upon us, a retail item already selling in the marketplace. Actually, there are three or four other video technologies on the way which may be even more revolutionary. One of them is small-scale satellite antennas, attached to your averge bungalow, which will give the homeowner access to 100 different channels. Another is cable TV. Its promise of diversity has long been stalled by political opposition from the networks and station owners, but it's creeping forward. Another is home computer terminals. What all of these new technologies have in common is this: Cach will multiply our private choices. Each threatens the centralized control now exerised by the national networks.
In a sense, we are looking forward at a second media explosion, which comes upon us when we are still trying to get used to the first one, the advent of TV itself. Whatever nasty things we say about TV's content, television has been liberating and egalitarian in its saturation of the society.
Everyone's private experiences were torn open to new and strange images. New pictures of distant strangers, of the world, of ourselves. Mountain people saw the oceans. Children saw adult wars at dinnertime, whth real bodies. The poor saw, in living color, how the rest of us live, what we buy and enjoy, what we expect life to provide us.
This liberation has shaken up nearly everything about us, from religion and politics to daily newspapers, and we are still discovering the new rules, the new ways in which people look at themselves. It has been egalitarian, mainly, because the benefits jof TV's new experiences are strongest for those who were most isolated before -- people who were cut off from the larger world by poverty or by the parochialism of their families or their regional cultures.
Yet this liberating technology has left a lot of us feeling like prisoners. Commercial television subverts the possibilities of the medium by reducing it to one narrow purpose: packaging mass audiences for sale to adverently worse than commercial television is noncommercial television.
Public television should be more directly threatened by the home video machines than commercial TV, simply because it already seves such a narrow audience. If poera lovers can buy a high-fidelity TV tape or disc of the grest operas, one which they can play again and again at a time of their own choosing, who needs Channel 26 and its petroleum patrons?
The important impact, however, will be the "new" audiences which these machines create. Herb Scholsser, the former NBC president who is now developing hlome video programming for RCA, sees many markets developing -- a new mass market for movice and other expensive productions, plus a proliferation of "narrow markets" which serve specialized interests.
Video discs, according to Schlosser, can "break even" with as little as 10,000 to 30,000 in sales. That means almost anyone with an idea for programming -- music or education or freaky politics, whatever -- can take a fling with a decent chance of selling enough discs to make money. In this vast country, you can find 30,000 people who will buy any crazy thing that comes along.
Chess addicts might subscribe to a series of "master chess matches," complete with commentary and kibitzing. Spiritual therapy nuts could buy their own cult-of-the-month programs. Strange dramatists with strange new plays will be able to find an off-net-work producer, willing to gamble on the future. And, yes, pornography will move into some living rooms too.
To imagine how large the homevideo market may become, think of the record industry. People who argue that Americans won't pay for TV discs are unaware that Americans already spend nearly $4 billion a year on phonograph records, with sound only. This is more than we spend buying tickets to all the sports events in America, college and professional. Private entertainment, controlled by private choices, competes quite comfortably with the public event of mass audiences.
The major producers of entertainment and information appreciate this potential. Videogrphy magazine, a trade publication which covers the infant industry, reported recently on a "software summit" sponsored by the International Tape Association in New York. The would-be video producers in attendance included CBS Records, Columbia Picture, McGraw-Hill Books, Time-Life Films, NFL Films, Music Corp. of America, Reader's Digest and Book-of-the-Month Club.
Book-of-the-Month Coub? Yes. At some point, TVprogramming will be marketed through clubs and mailing lists. Eventually, we may see libraries and rental businesses which distribute low-cost TV tapes and discs. Music. History. Pornography. Anything.
The possibilities are as diverse as American tastes and interests. The development of these specialized TV audiences will resemble the specialized magazines which in the last 15 years, when the mass-circualtion magazines -- Life, Look, Colliers -- were folding. Nobody expects network TV to go under, but its future income is threatened by this simple fact: If a family is watching a home-video program of its own seledtion, it will not be watching "Soap" or "Columbo," and cannot be counted in the "mass audience" which sponsors pay for.
My own hunch is that, once the "mass audience" numbers begin to erode, the networks will panic, just as the movie industry panicked when television took away its audience. This means network TV will probably get worse before it gets better.
Meanwhile, the networks will probably marshal their army of lawyers and invoke their political leverage to persuade the government to suppress this new technology. Reformers of every stripe, instead of wasting so much of their energy trying to censor the content of existing TV programming, should devote their zeal to a campaign to protect and encourage the emerging era of home video, which means citizen-controlled TV in universal terms. The best thing government can do to stimulate this promising future is to stay out of the way.
Eventully, if they are wise, the network moguls will rethink their "mass image" of who Americans are and, maybe, only maybe, network TV will deliver better shows. The networks will have to capitalize on their unique ability to deliver current events with immediacy, from football to news. Eventually, they will spend more money and time on news and immediate information, "live" events without laff tracks.
THIS NEW TECHNOLOGY asks the most profound questions, not of the three networks, but of every American family. While it liberated the minds of children, TV also undermined the authority of parents. Every child can test the homilies he hears from his parents against the competing reality he sees on TV. We all know that many children grow up believing that the cynical modernity of TV is real while their stodgy parents are hopelessly out of it.
Until now, parents have protested impotently.
Home video gives back to parents a real opportunity to reclaim some control over their children's education, to reclaim this responsibility from the tube and from the schools. If parents want their children to know about the Bible or radical politics or American history from a black perspective or Elizabethan drama or hog butchering in the old country manner or almost anything else, somebody will produce home-video programs which teach those subjects.
The question is: How many families will have the wit and nerve to take control of their own minds? 130: Picture, No Caption