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

By , Television critic of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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!"

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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).

In any event, in his various positions Mr. Geller is one of President Carter's chief telecommunications advisers, with lots of opinions. He spoke openly . . . or as openly as any Washington officeholder dares speak:

"We strongly favor diversity in the telecommunications industry. The more diversity -- the more choices the public has -- the better.

"We think that radio, for example, ought to be more choices the public has -- the better.

"We think that radio, for example, ought to be deregulated. The public-trustee concept ought to be gotten rid of. It hasn't worked well. It has large First Amendment costs. so we would replace it by simply a reasonable fee, and use that fee to promote minority ownership public radio without any content regulation.

"But in television, we would wait for the experience with radio. if deregulation in radio worked well, we would move on to TV. TV has thousands of stations, with many more in the offing, and we think, in view of what's happening with cables and discs and cassettes and perhaps direct broadcast satellites [from satellite directly to home receivers called dishes], that you can look to deregulating television. But I stress that we would do that only after we observe the experience with radio.

"Why should the government favor cable ove the broadcasters any more? I don't want the government to either favor them or disfavor them, but to get out of there."

With ust a few variations, Mr. Geller's theory was echoed by Vincent T. Wasilewski, president of the National Association of Broadcasters. The NAB, once a stronghold of antiregulation, now has some reservations about complete deregulation which would work to the disadvantage of the over-the-air broadcast vested interests.

Mr. Geller also had some strong opinions on the role of AT&T in the merging data communications and data processing fields. According to him, the newspapers do not want AT&T in the information business, to which AT&T answers that it won't be editing, just receiving material from others. "it's still another battle yet to be fought out."

According to Mr. Geller, "Public broadcasting plays a most difficult role this decade. Right now they are an atlernative service to commercial broadcasting. But if you have pay TV services becoming available, bringing a plethora of service and programming, plus discs and cassettes, what happens if PBS continues on its present path?

"It's not getting additional funding from the federal or state government -- the funding is remaining level, which means it's goind down because of inflation. Its subscribers base will be in difficulty if subscribers are being served by discs or cable.

"I think public television is quite right to look at where it should go."

Mr. Geller is a man who knows where he is headed. Exactly what role does he play in administration decision? Should we pay attention to what he says?

"We advice the president on telecommunication matters that warrant his attention," he points out. "We participate in the legislative process on the Hill on behalf of the executive branch. And we file pleadings with the FCC, espousing positions. We're the principal adviser to the president on telecommunications." Even though Mr. Geller's position on cable's right to pick up distant signals was not upheld by the FCC, he is a man whose opinions carry weight in WAshington. Especially while Jimmy Carter remains in office. FCC chairman

Federal Communications Commission chairman Charles D. Ferris is an outspoken advocate of deregulation, too. In his comfortable, commodious office in Washington, he confirms what just about every person interviewed has stressed and what any study of current cable systems will obviously reveal: The problem for Future TV is programming.

"The great gap in communications today is not hardware [techonology] but software [programming]. We're simply not generating the software, the creative programming, the information banks, in a way that users or viewers or listeners at the other end really will find more satisfying than what is already offered today.

"The thing we all have to realize is that we're all being programmed every waking moment, and probably some of our nonwaking moments. How is that going to be done? It's going to change dramatically over this decade. We're used to television as it is presently structured, but what is happening is that the basic structure of programming reaching us is changing.

"Because the capacity is changing, the opportunity for individuals to have, for the first time, a real say in the type of information they retrieve from the system is going to become a reality."

Mr. Ferris feels that the many modes of retrieving information are merging. He derides the use of the word "deregulating" as an easy catch-word but makes it clear that call it what he will, deregulation is where he is going.

Commissioner Ferris thinks the average viewer can expect a great deal more in the next few years than he is getting today. "I think it will be more than Qube presently provides in the areas of entertainment and information. And I think the political implications of two-way TV are going to change politics. He also believes that the electronic changes that move us have a great impact upon the way most Americans think about television."

According to Mr. Ferris, the existing structure of over-the-air permits a shared experience by almost all Americans. Almost everyone who watches TV now has a similar perception of what the news is, but when there are so many different choices of programming for the individual he doesn't believe any single program will ever again capture 100 million Americans simultaneously.

Opposition to chairman Ferris's plan for rapid radio deregulation has been growing among consumer-oriented organizations. Ralph M. Jennings, deputy director of the office of communications of a church group which has been especially active in telecommunications developments, testified at an FCC hearing recently that the deregulation proceedings "Were brought about by the wish of broadcasters to have free and permanent monopoly of their frequencies and to be relieved of responsibility to serve the public."

According to Jenings, there also seems to be a desire on the part of the FCC "to jump on the politically expedient bandwagon of deregulation."

He also accused the commission of conducting its hearings in a way calculated to confuse the public.

What does Mr. Jennings want? Fundamental re-examination of the public interest, a report, then comments from the public, the issuance of a standard, and finally, perhaps, some specific actions. This whole procedure could take a decade.

So it is questionable if deregulation of TV can possibly become a reality within this century unless radio deregulation is put into effect soon -- and proves workable. Consumer advocate

More choice for the public is the supposed aim of everybody -- but how is the consumer to be served best? What does one of the nation's leading consumer TV organizations, the National Citizen's Council for Broadcasting (NCCB), supported by 10,000 contributors, have to say about all of this?

Two publicity oriented critics of over-the-air broadcasting -- Ralph Nader and Nicholas Johnson -- are on the board of directors. But the executive director is Samuel A. Simon, who is softspoken in his effectiveness as a consumer advocate. He dropped by my New York office on an invitation to find out just what kind of series I was writing.

"As to deregulation -- our job is to empower citizen choice, and we certainly don't think the marketplace gives it. And I also think there is a marketplace of ideas, apart from the economic marketplace, which so few people in government or in broadcasting today want to consider seriously.

"One thing nobody likes to face is the fact that there are going to be more uses for cable channels than there are going to channels available in most communities. If you want to treat a cable company as a common carrier and allow the highest bidder for channels on a first-come, first-served basis, and you have channels left over after that, then you don't have scarcity.

"But that's not going to be the case. And somebody has to be watching out for the TV consumer. If not the government, then independent citizens' groups. Otherwise you're going to end up with a cable system as unsatisfying to large number of Americans as over-the-air broadcasting has proven to be."

What can the average TV consumer do now except read about what is happening and vote for those with whose opinions he agrees . . . assuming they have been stated?

"Force politicians to make their stands well known. Help organize cable consumer action groups. Such a group could be funded by being able to check off a montly voluntary contribution on your cable bill.

"We want cities, as part of their franchising, to require cable companies to allow a consumer group to be formed and represent cable subscribers. Cable consumers should demand some selection or some choice of the material provided them.

"We'd also like to see more cooperative ownership of media facilities. The best way to talk back to your television set is if you own a network or a cable system . . . or a share in one. There are already some rural cooperatively owned cable systems, and what we would like to see is more urban coops in major markets.

"The really oppressive regulations these days are those restricting the consumer's ability to go on the air. We are the ones who can't broadcast. We are the ones who are regulated. In a fair deregulated system, we'd be allowed to broadcast. That's real deregulation . . . not the half-hearted-measures being suggested. The other is just monopolization, enhancing and further entenchig the existing power structure."

Those current FCC suggested regulations which might allow greater minority ownership of new over-the-air channels would probably be one way to conform with Mr. Simon's demands.

"What's going to happen when you have 100 channels available? I think we'll see them get filled quickly with commercial material. . . unless we start doing something now."

Exactly what?

Mr. Simon is a bit unnerved by his interviewer's insistence upon specifics. "John NCCB. Join a cable consumer action group . . . or form one if one does not exist in your city. Be an active participant in the public-access channels available in most systems. Get into the production business yourself. Buy your own station or system. Form a co-op to buy a system or start a system. It's all still do-able. And it's time to start doing!"

If the new Video age seems to be startin gout too much like the Old Video Age , this time consumers have at least been forewarned by experience. The over-the-air system took control of our lives through its government-allocated channels and started changing our society before we even realized that we had created an environment rather than just a mere entertainment system.

The old TV is over!

Future TV is here!

The New Video Age has begun!

Are you going to sit back again and hope for the best -- or try to have some direct say in your own video future this time around?

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