Will the New Video Age be an era of marvelously innovative electronic programming . . . or will it end up being just more of the sam tired old stuff we are used to seeing on "old fashioned" over-the-air broadcasting today?
Well, hundreds of additional channels will undoubtedly be brought into the homes of cabel subscribers (already Qube is promising at least 80 channels to Pittsburgh). According to just about every programmer in Tv today, the main problem is going to be to create worthwhile shows to fill those long empty hours.
Video cassettes for playing on the various systems of players are already offering new movies for less than $50 (and renting for $7 to $12) -- but very little original entertainment. And unfortunately there is a growing under-the-counter market for pornographic films on cassette.
Whether the video-cassette market will go the way of the hard-cover-book business, which survived a dry period before paperback when millions of people rented their books from lending libraries, remains to be seen.
Whether to buy a Sony Betamax or VHS model -- and thus be forced to buy its noninterchangeable cassettes in the future -- is a decision individual purchasers must make. Keep in mind that the current cassettes are not interchangeable, although Sony is trying to spark a movement to standardize and is introducing a new all-in-one recorder-cassette that fits right into a Beta-type player.
But even Sony admits it will probably not be on the market before 1985. Sony hopes all companies will by then agree on a universal cassette system, preferably Sony's
Video discs selling for $5 to $25 have already made their apperance and will be more available in 1981. They are designed to be played on video-disc players which will probably initially market for anywhere from $500-$800 and eventually go much lower (in the manner of Polaroid cameras, because the profit will eventually be in the discs rather than the players, just as the major profit in Polaroid is now in the film rather than the camera itself).
Just as in the case of cassette recorders, the discs for the basic systems -- RCA's Selectavision, Philips/MCA or JVC -- are not interchangeable. A new Pioneer Laser Disc system just coming on the market retails for around $750 with laser videodiscs selling for $5 to $25 apiece.
All of the over-the-air broadcasting networks as well as many independent production companies are setting up programming division and planning supposedly original marketable programming to be sold to the pay-TV cable systems as well as video-disc consumers. It is expected that there will be the same kind of battle among the various kinds of systems which the record industry went through before there was a standardized 33 1/3 LP and a universal 45 r.p.m. size.
In addition, most of the pay-TV systems like Home Box Office and Showtime are trying their hands at original programming, so as not to be wholly dependent upon movies as their main selling point.
Programming for RCA's video-disc Selectavision system is mainly in the hands of executive vice-president Herbert Schlosser, the programmer who headed NBC when it signed Henry Kissinger and Gerald and Betty Ford for alleged million-dollar contracts. Now he will start the premier 1981 video-disc season with "To Russia . . . With Elton John." Also signed for future shows, according to Mr. Scholsser, is rock impresario Don Kirschner and Walth Disney Productions.
That gives you some idea of the general level that potential buyers can expect in discovision entertainment.
And what about the three major over-the-air network broadcasters? Do they plan to go to way-out extremes to compete with the new programming threats? And the Public Broadcasting Service -- where does PBS fit into the scheme of Future TV?
First I talked with Gene Jankowski, president of CBS/Broadcast Group, the No. 1 commercial network of the past season. He sees a need for very little change.
"For at least the next decade we will continue to have the most important place in communications -- and over-the-air broadcasting will remain every bit as important as it is today," Mr. Jankowski says.
"The public doesn't buy technology, what they buy is the message. The public doesn't care how that message gets into the house as long as it is a worthwhile message. And as long as commercial broadcasting can continue to provide the best that money and people and creative energies can provide -- the best in entertainment and the best in information -- it's going to be around and viable for a long time to come.
"People bought television sets because radio was only giving them words. They bought TV for the new message: pictures. Cable will have to bring something new and needed if it is ever to succeed. What is there that is new and unique about the messages they are offering? There is great difficulty in finding ideas that can be executed in such a way that they will attract a mass audience.?
But what about good ideas that do not have mass audience appeal? Might not cable be the place for them?
"I don't think there are a lot of good ideas," Mr. Jankowski says. "Certainly there may be some that do not have mass appeal, but PBS has been doing them for a number of years -- the Boston Pops, MacNeil/Lehrer, Bill Moyers.
They don't have mass appeal, but they are already available in the marketplace."
Many broadcasting observers believe that an independent cable TV will compete with over-the-air commercial TV eventually by fragmenting the audiences and serving specialized groups of smaller minority-interest audiences, perhaps leaving mass-appeal programming to the old networks.
This critic feels that the reverse might prove true -- that the major over-the-air broadcasters will somehow arrange to move into cable legally and impose that same mass-audience taste level on the newer medium, such as a supershow with Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, and Carroll O'Connor for the price for $ 10 per household, thus earning $500 million in one evening. The then-liberated commercial channels would be left for advertisers seeking small-number minority audiences.
How does that strike Mr. Jankowski?
"I have a lot of problems with that scenario. First, there has to be a worthwile message. The second thing is the high capital intensity of wiring a town. I live in southern Connecticut, and it is estimated that it costs $100, 000 per mile to wire a town. I will be years before cable for everybody is economically feasible.
"Anyway, even with cable in the home, most people still watch commercial channels. What we lose sight of, and what the doomsayers about commercial broadcasters lose sight of, is that history shows that everytime a new visual distribution system comes on the scene, it's always associated with the current existing visual means of communication.
"You've got video cassettes, video discs, cable -- all of which they say will eventually unseat commercial broadcasting. Now, where all of that falls apart is that seldom does anybody take a look at the total communications and information flow to the American public from the individual's point of view.
"Here I am in New York. At my finger tips are close to 100 radio stations, around 20 television stations, newspapers, magazines, theaters, motion pictures, video cassettes, etc. So as a consumer I can get whatever information I want in whatever form I want it. Is there going to be another message delivered to me in this environment which is uniquely different enough to make me want to go out of my way to obtain the equipment which will be the means to obtain it?
"Let's be specific -- pay TV. The reason consumers buy pay TV is because of the new movies, basically. It costs $4 a head to go to a local theater, whereas for less than $20 per month I can have four movies brought into the home for the whole family to see. But the fact of the matter is that I have not been won away from commercial TV -- I have been snatched away from my local theater. In this case, cable TV is giving me something special . . . co I subscribe. But these kinds of examples are hard to find.
"I'm a news buff, so I may turn to the 24-hour cable news network instead of listening to an allnews radio station. But basically it is wimming me away from radio and probably from my newsmagazine, not commercial TV. It's a kind of time exchange.
"Cassette recorders fall into the same category. Ninety percent of the use of cassette recorders is for time-shifting. People record one program so they can watch another, or if they are not going to be home, to record a favorite show.
"So it's not that we are spending less time watching commercial television -- but we are shifting the pattern in which we watch it. And in fact, we are watching more commercial TV."
In light of the current seeming loss of viewers on commercial TV, I ask, just a bit skeptically: Then the president of the leading commercial network is convinced that the commercial networks are already giving the American public the programs it wants?
There is not a moment of hesitation as Gene Jankowski looks the interviewer straight in the eye and says, without wincing in any way:
"If we weren't giving them what they want they wouldn't watch it the way they watch it. When you get 40 percent of the audience, you've got to be doing something right."
Does that mean that the new TV season will not see any really innovative or evolutionary new directions in programming?
"Well, some of the production values have changed and some of the story lines have changed, but in terms of what commercial television offers, it's the same as it has always been. It's pure entertainment. It's sophisticated comedy. It's slapstick comedy. It's sophisticated adult drama.
"Our shows are built around human events, and it will always be that way. The essence of any drama being portrayed on television is what's happening in real life. That's what the American public wants, and we are obviously giving them exactly what they want."
Considering all of this, why has CBS just ananounced that it has formed a subsidiary to produce programming for cable?
"Cable is there . . . ," Mr. Jankowski says.
"I think cable can be viable. There will be some successful operators and some successful programs that will be available from time to time. But I think that commercial TV will basically remain the same entity it is. CBS's main relationship with cable TV will be to produce programming that will be paid for by the cable operators."
All of which does not hold out much hope for better programming on either commercial TV or cable TV. A quick survey of all three networks' scheduled new season bears out exactly what Mr. Jankowski has said. Both CBS and NBC are giving us more of "the same." And perhaps ABC is moving in a slightly different direction . . . tipping the balance much more toward sexual innuendo and titillation. But that is apparently what network executives call "sophistication."
There are other voices. When a veteran programming executive, Michael H. Dann, was appointed senior program adviser to ABC Video Enterprises, the ABC subsidiary most involved in cable TV, he said, "This new industry has not been developed to show feature movies. You have to think of its as a whole new way to pass information, not how you get better quiz shows."
Perhaps even the old-time voices are beginning to have new-era ideas. Public TV
Listen to Lawrene Grossman, president of Public Broadcasting Service, an organization trying to find a place for itself int he new communications setup:
"There is bound to be great diversity in programming, but the danger may be that instead of having a choice among three networks of boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, and fried potatoes, you'll now be able to have baked potatoes and sauteed potatoes and hashbrown potatoes. But still all potatoes."
Many observers believes that PBS is in great danger of losing government support in the New Video Era while other "minority" programmers find places for them" selves in cable or pay TV . . . or even in abandoned over-the-air channels.
Does Mr. Grossman see a place for himself and his organization in Future TV? Might PBS find a place for itself as a producer of good -quality programming for all sides, a la BBC?
"I don't see us becoming producers as such. I certainly see us becoming distributors, promoters, encouragers, funders, sources, stimulators, and standing for quality programming no matter what the medium, whether overthe-air or cable or whatever. "There needs to be somem service dedicated to quality programming. It cannot be just left to technology and the marketplace."
Mr. Grossman envisions PBS as both "a beacon and a conscience." He believes that government financial support must continue. "But I also think we will be developing other sources of support. PACE [the Carnegie Foundation report's recommendation for a cultural pay-TV channel] is a good example. I think the proposal is very exciting, but the financing proposals are not so exciting.
"But we're working on some ideas such as why we can't go out to the public and ask them to invest directly. Bypass the government and the Coporation for Public Broadcasting and try to get a half million people to contribute $100 each toward the start of a great new cultural service. We could put together the Boston Sumphony, Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, and the Denver Symphony. Their membership lists show there's a tremendous demand for cultural programming on both cable and over the air.
"Maybe it is time to go directly to the people and say: 'We need your support to start something like this. . . .'"
Could PBS remain over the air that way?
"We might be able to remain over the air, or we could provide pay cable service in the first instance, then reruns on free TV int he second instance, and replays through discs adn cassettes in the third instance. Maybe we could be in many media."
If that amounts to a plaintive cry for help from a quality-minded programmer, here's what a new cable programmer, riding high on expectations, hopes to bring to Future TV. Says Michael Clark, programming head of Showtime, the second-largest pay-TV system (Home Box Office ranks No. 1):
"I think you're going to see a tremendous surge of products in all areas. We know there's an appetite for uncut, unedited, uncensored movies. We also know there is an appetite for 'even' programming, i.e., Tom Jones's act from Las Vegas, from beginning to end. We tend toward the events -- the things people would pay for if they were in their area and they could go see them. That's the mass audience appeal in pay TV.
"I think the elite audiences will be the people going for information and news. We want to do things that have wide appeal, but we also want to do things that are more specialized, like a Ralph Nade 'For the People' show. We also want to do a 'Broadway On Showtime' series which shows the original theatrical productions.
"We have taken mass television as we know it one step further. We provide on a pay basis a service that will have something for everybody.We try to provide excellence in programming that cannot be seen on free TV."
Then Mr. Clark, whos eems to want to be all things to all viewers, has a second thought. "But our role could change radically. We could conceivably become a software producer for others."
Some of the "quality" programs Mr. Clark is talking about: "Liberace Plays Las Vegas," a grotesque comedy series called "Bizarre," and "The Passion of Dracula."
Obviously "the New Video Age" consumer is going to have to fight to improve his programming fare, just as he has had to fight for better shows on commercial TV.
And on over-the-air TV, the consumer has never won the right to make his selections at the newver won the right to make his selections at the top. He has always been offered a choice from what the network leaders think he wants . . . their version of the "average guy's" version of "pure entertainment."
Just about the only new development in programming which is attracting attention as a harbinger of Future TV is Cable News Network, the 24-hour news service from Atlanta. Says its president, Reese Shonfeld, "All-news programming represents the future for over-the-air broadcasting, as well as cable. Soon there will be at least two all-news TV stations in every market."
Will cable-TV consumers be yearning for the good old "golden days of PBS" one day soon?
Will mass-oriented entertainment simply cross over from free TV to pay TV?
Is Future TV just Past TV with a higher price tag?
Tune in tomorrow for the next installment, not necessarily the answers.
Tomorrow: For the consumer -- prospects and challenges