TOMORROW'S TV The 1980s: where you fit in

In Columbus, Ohio, around 30,000 people are living in 1985! They are premature participants in the New Video Age, an era which has progressed from "primitive" over-the-air broadcasting in 1948 to sophisticated forms of cable TV in 1980.

A host of other systems is already here: pay cable TV, over-the-air pay TV, satellite transmissions, home computers, teletext information banks, electronic games, electronic newspaper delivery services, two-way interactive features and services, video cassette recorders and players, and video discs and players.

But what about the future -- the 1980s and beyond?

Will consumer bills for pay cable TV escalate to monthly $200 surprises for the head of the household?

Might the privacy of ordinary citizens be endangered by the pay cable monitoring devices that bill you through constant electronic scanning of your viewing habits?

Will the current lack of enough suitable programming force cable systems to abandon plans to use perhaps hundreds of channels in each system?

Will a revised Communications Act and a deregulation-minded national administration render most current cable planning obsolete next year?

Is there a place for public broadcasting in the spectrum of cable and over-the-air broadcasting?

Will the three major over-the-air networks be able to wrest control of cable networks or will power remain with AT&T? Other billion-dollar industrial titans are already vying for control -- only recently Westinghouse announced it was arranging to buy its way into Teleprompter Corp., one of the largest cable systems.

These and other vital questions were pursued by this reporter in visits to cable systems, chats with cable-family subscribers, and interviews with executives in both cable and broadcasting industries.

The answers sometimes proved to be as obscure as some of the technology.

Only one thing is certain: The technology is already available on almost all counts for those with the capital and the programming to utilize it.

What is lacking in most instances is the proper "software" (programming is called software in the industry and machines are called hardware). This is the alternative programming which entrepreneurs hope will make subscription TV a necessity for millions of Americans who think they are already fully participating in the Video Age without it.

Meanwhile, already in the works for the home in some areas are video security systems, energy management systems, video telephones, video checkout-line advertising in supermarkets, video banking, and all kinds of video shopping.

In July, the Walter Mitty dream of many American males was brought to fruition when a Columbus, Ohio, Rams football game was masterminded by an electronic audience, which called most of the team's plays by pushing buttons on their Qube (the name of the Warner Amex prototype cable system in Columbus) consoles. (The audience-managed Columbus team, by the way, lost the game.)

According to the latest available figures, around 98 percent of all American homes -- 75 million -- possess TV sets that receive the normal over-the-air broadcasts.

Approximately 22 percent of all US households -- around 17 million -- are served by some form of cable system as well. Around 10,000 communities have enfranchised cable systems, but some 13 million homes to which cable is now available choose not to subscribe.

Whether that choice is the result of satisfaction with the existing over-the-air service or due to the cost of cable subscription has not yet been determined. But research by the National Cable Television Association indicates that by the end of the decade at least 40 million homes will be wired for cable, representting around 50 percent of all television homes.

So cable television is finally beginning to look more and more like the alternative to over-the-air broadcasting which has always been its promise.

At least for those who can afford to pay the tab.

In general, residents of Columbus who subscribe to the 30-channel Qube system (yes, 30 and Qube's Pittsburgh system is scheduled to provide 80 -- yes, 80 -- channels), and to a lesser extent subscribers to other cable systems, are currently the recipients of major Video Age bonuses -- some free, some inexpensive, some expensive.

Charges, constantly rising to match inflation and the cost of improved and broadened services, could eventually convert what started out as a mass medium, affordable to all, into an elite, specialized medium in great part, affordable only to the middle and upper classes.

Charges vary by system and location, but the average one-time installation fee is now around $20, with monthly service charges often coming to a basic $10. However, optional pay-TV services are available for whatever fees the customers will bear. Home Box Office, the largest supplier of recent movies, charges around $10 additional for its service, and some other film purveyors charge even more.

Qube, for instance, recently charged subscribers an additional $10 per household for the Leonard-Duran prizefight. Seven thousand household signed up. Qube estimates that more than 50,000 people watched the fight, either in parties at Qube-subscriber homes or in public places like restaurants.

But that is only part of the Video Age story -- there is a wide range of choices and alternatives for the New Video family. Many of the products and services will become obsolete or require the purchase of additional products within a year after acquisition. Their lure is so great that few Americans with cash in pocket are expected to resist succumbing to at least some of the video paraphernalia available.

Video hardware being offered or about to be offered right now includes video cassette recorders and players, video discs and video disc players, huge flat screens, and electronic games.

And depending upon the cable system your community has chosen to franchise, you may find some of the following available: a new-movie channel, an old-movie channel, an all-sports channel, a 24-hour news channel, an "adult" (a euphemism for objectionable soft-core porno) movie channel, an all-children's programming channel, a burglar and fire alarm system, an emergency health service system, and a lending-library service.

These are not 1985 services -- they are all 1980 reality in one or more of the approximately 4,500 cable systems in operation today.

Most of the special services, outside of Home Box Office and Showtime Enterprises (both basically recent-movie pay channels), are losing money. In fact, Thomas E. Wheeler, president of the National Cable Television Association, told me that Home Box Office has proved to be one of the cable business's most effective come-ons, enticing homeowners to subscribe to basic cable and almost single-handedly pulling cable TV out of its temporary doldrums in recent years.

He hopes, by the way, that Ted Turner's Cable News Network will be able to do a similar job for those systems that are offering it free to subscribers at a cost to the system operator of 15 cents per head.

Why do those cable systems continue to operate at a loss?

Long-range business acumen, in most cases. Aware system operators understand that, as more and more homes are wired, the cost to them per subscriber will decrease. And most systems will be making money within a few years, if not within the coming year.

Cable system operators believe almost to a man, however, that the "Big Money" will come inevitably from two-way "interactive" services such as banking, shopping, and alarm systems.

Based on the current uneven and unstable financial picture, as compared with industrywide projections for 1990, the ideal fantasy of most of today's cable operators would be to acquire the exclusive franchise for almost any community now, and (this is the fantasy part) be permitted to hold on to the franchise for around 10 years before actually fulfilling their obligation to provide service to the community.

Yet most profit-oriented cable companies realize that the faster a majority of the nation's homes are wired for cable, the faster the unlimited moneymaking capacity will be realized. It is an almost infallible ploy: Persuade the consumer to share the setting-up costs by paying, say, $20 for installation now. Then keep him paying a monthly fee, perhaps $10, for minimal programming and slightly better reception of over-the-air stations for as long as possible -- at least until the cable system is ready to feed him the two-way moneymaking services.

Make no mistake about it: The current cable systems are planning to integrate you into their own future wired network of consumers, using the temporary lure of advertising-free entertainment to hook you now.

Roger Smith, vice-president of Warner Communications (which, with American Express, owns Warner Amex, which, in turn, owns Qube), says the over-the-air broadcasters are in reality selling warm bodies to advertisers. According to Mr. Smith, cable systems must first sell their services to the consumer directly.

But neither Mr. Smith nor anybody else in the cable hierarchy is willing to admit that somewhere down the line, America's cable systems will probably also be selling warm bodies and glazed eyeballs to advertisers.

Where does the average American video consumer stand amid all of this confusing information, hardware, and software?

After weeks of investigation, reading, researching, and interviewing top officials in government, cable, and over-the-air broadcasting, as well as consumer groups and individual cable subscribers, it has become apparent to this reporter that the New Video Age is upon us right now.

And it is incumbent upon all of us -- subscribers and nonsubscribers alike -- to learn more about what we are giving up to acquire what we are being offered.

Such questions as loss of privacy as well as cost of services are both important issues and must be understood before irreversible decisions are made. As futuristic as the present video age seems, it may very well prove to be merely a transitional period in the brave new electronic world of the more distant future.

Alvin Toffler, author of the celebrated "Future Shock," has a more recent book entitled "The Third Wave," which I found on the bookshelves of many cable executives. His "electronic cottage" has replaced Marshall McLuhan's "global village" in many of the executives' vocabularies. Mr. Toffler told me:

"I foresee three stages in our society's utilization of cable television. The first stage will be passive TV entertainment and information. The second stage will be the utilization of cable for interactive consumer purposes. And the third stage will be the use of cable TV and the wired society for work.

"When I talk about the 'electronic cottage' I mean basically the use of the home for cottage industries . . . the use of electronics for production rather than consumption. The big change will come soon when the electronics introduced into the average American home becomes a work tool rather than just an entertainment or consumer tool. .T"There are millions of workers out there typing, filing memos, writing out invoices, who will no longer need to be in central locations, like offices. They can do their work from their homes, sometimes with the aid of the rest of the family. And they can start new cottage industries with the electronic information and services available to them within arm's reach.

"All of this may sound utopian now, but the logic of declining energy and improved telecommunications at favorable cost definitely points in that direction."

Next: A trip to Future TV land -- today.

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