Couch Potatoes On the Verge

THE future isn't what it used to be, and probably never will be. Remember the picturephones on display at the world's fairs of the 1960s? Being able to see people as well as hear them when we talked on the phone was to be part of the wave of the future. Of course, there would be times when you wouldn't want to be seen, and then you could turn the picture off.... Somehow picturephones never caught on; instead, we've had things like call-waiting service and answering machines - relatively lower-tech and much more useful.

So it has gone. Progress into the future is less of a relentless forward march than a meander, a stream quirkily changing course. Remember quadraphonic stereo? Citizens' band radio?

Videotex may be the picturephone of the 1990s. Videotex allows people to call up a range of information services on the screens of their home computers - shopping, weather, news.

As recently as 1986, some perfectly respectable prognosticators were forecasting that videotex services would be available in up to 20 million homes by this year. In fact, the number of households with videotex today is still under 1 million.

The conventional wisdom is that videotex is a technology in search of a market. Much of what videotex provides is already available through other channels, including the Sears catalogue. So it's hard to argue that videotex fills a need. (Of course, in the early days, it wasn't immediately clear that telephones in the home would fill a need, either.)

If a new technology doesn't fill a perceived need, an alternative might be to spread it around anyway, to see what happens when some sort of critical mass is reached.

This is what has happened with the biggest videotex success stories, the Minitel system in France. Telecom, the national telecommunications agency, trying to bring the French people into the computer age, hit upon the idea of providing subscribers with a small terminal giving access to a computerized telephone directory. Minitel started out as an alternative to a continuously obsolescing paper directory and has gone on to a certain fame as a sort of electronic lonely hearts' club, with people spending hours every month in extensive computer correspondence. This computer chat is a profitable part of the system, but the reviews of the Minitel experiment as a whole are mixed.

John Carey, a telecommunications consultant with Greystone Communications, cites the forecasters' overoptimism on videotex as an example of how far off these predictions can be.

At a conference last week at the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University, he detailed an interesting pattern he has found in the adoption of new technologies. First radio, then black-and-white television, and finally color television, penetrated half of all US households when the average price of a set fell to a bit less than two weeks' average household income - in 1931, 1955, and 1972, respectively.

But in the case of the videocassette recorder, the stream changed course just a bit: VCRs hadn't really arrived in half of all US households until their prices fell to a bit more than one week's average income, as they did by the end of 1987.

What's next for consumer technologies? What are couch potatoes on the verge of taking to heart next?

Carey sees ``tremendous volatility under the surface of the statistics'' on cable television subscriptions and other signings-on to new technologies. Cable TV is still expanding, but with considerable ``churn,'' as subscribers cancel one service and try another.

Carey looks to the behavior of children for clues to the future of the media marketplace. ``Kids do a lot of repeat viewing - 75 to 100 times for a single videocassette - I'd say that conservatively.'' So it used to be with the favorite storybook, which got ``read'' to pieces. People today are used to getting what they want when they want it. The littlest children are unclear on the concept of a program being ``on television,'' and hence unavailable at certain other times. But even they grasp the difference, will they accept having the idea of a fixed broadcast schedule?

There are sure to be other bends in the technology stream; and who knows, there may even be a market for picturephones.

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