Filling the Future's 500 TV Channels

LET'S pretend the electronic superhighway has already been paved. A massive deal of some kind has been struck among carriers - the phone companies, the cable systems, the satellite companies, even the electric utilities (which have lately been saying that they, too, should be allowed to carry TV signals). Programmers no longer face the danger of being shouldered out in the struggle over channels on cable TV. Viewers can sit at home with 500 or so channels at their disposal.

Then what? Where do you get material that even approaches the tolerable level to fill all that time? The real answer may lie in another question: Who said anything about tolerable? If people fret over the junk, trivia, and worse already filling the afternoons and wee hours on TV - and that's with only a handful of channels to program - they should shudder at the prospect of a technology with an almost inexhaustible capacity to deliver schlock. The potential for creating a lot of channels may exist, but filling them satisfactorily takes imagination, and that usually runs out first. Such programming needs remind me of taking a long car trip with children and having to come up with ways to entertain (``I know! Let's see who can count the most license plates from different states!'').

Some of the media megamergers completed or currently being negotiated revolve around this question of production needs and program rights. The heads of broadcast and cable TV systems are keenly aware that having something worthwhile to program is perhaps the key capability, and they are willing to commit billions to gain it.

But here's another answer, though decidedly only a partial one, in response to how the new thirst for material can be slaked: Talk, talk, talk. Reconcile yourself to the fact that we're going to hear and see many more of those talking heads as TV pulls onto the electronic superhighway.

Before you throw up your hands at the idea, consider just one example of the many unpalatable alternatives: the growing porn-video market. Reports have been surfacing about its anticipated expansion into the multichannel video future. One of the biggest of porn entrepreneurs has been accumulating rights to a library of ``adult'' films to use when all those new channels open up.

So don't be too harsh in your reaction to the fact that this month NBC launched ``America's Talking,'' a new cable channel with wall-to-wall talk, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's not the trashy, opportunistic brand of talk so prevalent in syndication these days. It's what the company calls a ``national conversation,'' and a peek at its programming reveals a compendium of trendy topics. ``Have a Heart'' - described by the channel itself as ``part soap opera, part talk show, and, yes, part game show'' - lets guests describe their needs and invites viewers to help. That's an old radio format, as a matter of fact, but it should work well in its new incarnation. ``Alive and Wellness'' samples alternatives to conventional medical treatment. There are in-depth reports and other probes. And there is ``Bugged,'' which refers not to surveillance but to being driven up a wall. Viewers, invited guests, and audience members will have a chance to tell about what they're steamed about in private and public life.

One thing some people have been steamed about is press speculation that, in order to make room for ``America's Talking,'' some cable systems may bump C-Span. A 1992 cable law requires systems to include local broadcast stations - the so-called ``must carry'' rule - and some systems have already been dropping C-Span to accomplish this. The systems have also been dropping C-Span for channels like Fox's new FX.

Will more systems sacrifice C-Span when ``America's Talking'' is launched? Cable viewers wonder. The shakeout isn't clear yet, and meanwhile the United States Supreme Court has ruled that more evidence is needed to justify the must-carry rule. A three-judge federal court will now take another look at it.

But that's exactly the kind of issue that may not exist in the new media world. The challenge is likely to be the opposite - a scramble for material. ``America's Talking'' is one answer, incomplete but tolerable. You could do a lot worse.

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