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TOMorrow's TV; For the consumer: prospects and challenges

By Arthur UngerTelevision critic of The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 1980



Washington and New York

The Old TV is over! The Old TV is over! On late-night TV these days you may be able to see the old 1934 Shirley Temple movie "Stand Up and Cheer," which ends with a big production number about America's economic problems, culminating when members of the cast dash around shouting: "The depression is over! The depression is over!" -- as if the depression were a squall which had just passed over 20th Century-Fox.

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After thoroughly researching the prospects for Future TV, I now have the urge to dash around shouting to all who will listen: "The Old TV is over! The Old TV is over!"

I might even add: "We're already in the New Video Age and nobody seems to realize it!"

Already obvious signs of Future TV are appearing at every level. The movement is uneven -- sometimes leaping across great spaces, at other times taking a few small steps for TV-kind.

In August of this year, for instance, Sony introduced the first "moderately priced" ($2,500-$3,000) 50- and 72-inch flat color projection screens. Future TV -- today.

RCA and Magnavox are marketing their video disc players and discs in most areas this year. Future TV -- today.

What would RCA's executive vice-president of research and engineering personally buy today if he were an average consumer, considering the problems of early obsolesence, etc.?

Says William C. Hittinger: "I would put my money into a video disc player. Certainly there will be improved features in the future -- but not total obsolescence. . . .

"I think the problem with video cassette recorders and other new equipment is confusion and lack of standardization. People simply don't kno enough to understand the subtleties between VHS and Betamax. When we get into discs there will be the optical disc vs. RCA's capacitance discs vs. somebody else's. . . . I think these problems confuse people and cause them to hold off buying.

"In today's economy, they simply must make it their business to learn what is offered and buy what suits their individual needs best."

How does the consumer learn to shop?

"By being alert. By listening carefully to other consumers who have already bought, by studying, by reading what people like you write. Clearly it is bewildering. But what a wonderful kind of bewilderment!"

Some of the techonological "advances" come in the form of what seems like "videoese" to the uninitiated. Telecommunication issues and products in 1980 sometimes pose 1990 questions. Should the Federal Communication Commission allow cable systems to pick up "distant" signals without paying royalties? Should the recent FCC suggestions for more over-the-air stations be put into effect? Should the FCC approve the British or French teletext system (transmission to the home of text and graphics with conventional TV signal)?

Will the FCC authorize TV transmission of high fidelity sound systems to standard TV sets (requiring a different kind of signal)?

And when will Congress finally prepare an acceptable revision of the now obsolete Communications Act?

Meantime, how far toward deregulation of the communications industry is the US government moving?

Putting aside the probability of finding many of the answers in this transitional period, i went to Washington in the hope of at least understanding some of the questions. "The Carter administration is a deregulation administration," I had been told.

Is that really true? And if so, what does it mean to the average TV consumer?

First, a session with Henry Geller, administrator of the National Telecommunications and information Administration, which is incorporated in his position as assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information (all of which is enough to confuse Mr. Geller himself, not to mention anybody searching for official TV information).