TELEVISION during the 1990s promises to deliver an array of technical marvels that will expand viewers' choices and intensify their personal involvement. At the same time, there seem to be few prospects for an improvement in program quality.
While there are not likely to be any radical changes in what is shown on TV, the advances in technology will increasingly allow broadcasters to set their sights beyond the mass audience and "target" specific - and more limited - interest groups.
Whether the television industry structure as we know it - with the networks dominating the scene - will continue during the coming decade is questionable.
Top industry analysts say they are convinced that the '90s will see the demise of at least one network, and the merger of at least one, or possibly two of them, with cash-rich Hollywood studios. Apart from that, it seems likely that the emphasis will gradually shift from the networks to the local stations, certainly in the important area of news.
The key changes are these:
* Cable will continue to spread and, by the year 2000, 150 channels could be available to the average home. This will be accomplished by new technologies that enable broadcasters to "compress" the broadcast signal so that a single channel can carry between three and 10 programs simultaneously. A decoder attached to the set then restores the original image. Right now, a channel is limited to a single transmission.
* The government will likely allow telephone companies to enter the broadcast field in communication and programming. This will involve the introduction of fiber optics, strands of fine glass wire capable of carrying hundreds of signals simultaneously.
Fiber optics could revolutionize the industry. For instance, viewers would be able to pick and choose picture angles and dial for instant replays during a sporting event.
* High-definition television will improve picture sharpness, particularly for larger screens. The Japanese are already broadcasting test programs.
* Pay-per-view television, still in its early stages, will spread and will apply to new movies, special sports, and other events.
* Interactive television will give the viewer an opportunity to interact with the shows and manipulate certain aspects of the programming. Home-shopping networks and call-in talk shows represent just a tentative start in that direction.
* More homes will project the television signal onto a large screen or a wall, and attempts to achieve a three-dimensional effect will be stepped up.
* The exchange of television programs internationally will increase, thanks in part to the large number of new communications satellites being launched annually, and to the need for programming to meet the capacity of the new channels. This change is likely to signal the introduction of European and other countries' shows on US television, from which they are now mostly barred.
Henry Schleiff, chairman and chief executive officer of Viacom Entertainment, the leading US production and syndication conglomerate, says, "The search for the Holy Grail in television has always been aimed at the home as a multimedia center. During the next eight years, we'll certainly have video on demand. To a degree, it will be like living in a video store right now."
Dr. Everette E. Dennis, president of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center (formerly Gannett Center for Media Studies), sides with industry observers who say that program content won't keep pace with technology. "I think there will be a continuing slide in the mass-market content. It will continue to 'dumb down.' At the same time, there will be some cable channels and specialized outlets which will become the intelligent source for news and entertainment," Dr. Dennis says.
The biggest question is how the industry will find adequate programming for 150 channels and whether advertisers will support that many shows, even though pay television and pay-per-view may provide a new base of supplementary financial support.
" 'Niche' programming, with cable addressing itself to specific interest groups - limited as they may be - is going to be the answer," says Dominic Serafini, publisher of Video Age International, a TV trade publication. "These are the groups which television so far has largely ignored, but which can be reached by cable at a reasonable cost-per-thousand."