Television's Future Has Choice Overload

YOU'RE sitting at home in the year 2000, trying to decide what TV shows to watch for the evening.

It's quite a job. After all, there are almost unlimited titles out there (that's one of the problems, in fact - but more on that in a minute). You're no longer bound by a mere "500 channels to pick from." That was people's idea of a big selection back in 1993, before they caught on to the true dimensions of the revolution. Now that the millennium is here, you select from a positively encyclopedic menu, ranging from old films and TV series to a huge repertoire of other possibilities.

This scenario was roughly the one I heard described last week by an impressively informed man named Russell Neuman. It was during a conference called "The Future of Television," convened by cable channel HBO and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where it was held. Moderator Marvin Kalb of the JFK School had asked panelists to move mentally to the year 2000 and tell us where we'd be.

Mr. Neuman, a professor at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, jumped at the chance. Call it niche TV, or a video store in the home, the new system he foresaw was a kind of automat of personalized choices, delivered on a superhighway of fiber optics, with dazzling interactive capabilities. Forget "channels" or "networks." You'll pick your programming by the production. Maybe you're a fan of film comedies of the '50s but don't remember the titles. No problem - this is two-way TV, rem ember. On one of the channels, there's a little man you can actually speak with. He will recommend some golden oldies. Tell him you like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" sitcom from the '70s and he'll offer a list of 20 to pick from. Oh, you especially like gruff Mr. Grant, news director at the station where Mary worked? Fine, here are five episodes from that sitcom that focus on him.

"Advertiser support will be history," says Neuman. But that doesn't mean no commercials. Those episodes you just picked will come in at least two modes: with ads for $2, or without for $4. In either case, this arrangement finds advertisers having little or no say in what people watch or when they watch it. Commercials will be kind of piggy-backed on individual shows. Someone in the audience referred to them as being "encapsulated" in a program.

Although these shows won't be coming to you "on a channel" as such, a lot of the shows will be "provided" by HBO, said Neuman, with a reassuring glance toward fellow-panelist Michael Fuchs, HBO's chairman and CEO.

But Mr. Fuchs wasn't buying it, and for what I felt were realistic reasons. (Creeping realism from the business people on the panel had a way of puncturing some of the theorists' most fervent points.) "Bringing the video store into the home is not the future," Fuchs claimed. How will a show be financed, he wanted to know, in Neuman's brave new world of individual programs? Despite the technological insight of Neuman's futuristic picture, Fuchs felt that Neuman was leaving something out, a key element tha t might be described as "the presenter." People don't turn on the TV set full of predetermined choices and selection techniques. They want a source that has proven satisfying in the past - a channel, a venue. As Fuchs put it, "Americans have to be told what's out there." Five hundred channels - or 5 million individual choices - would be the chaos and old night (to quote Milton) of the electronic age.

To solve this anticipated problem of choice, some companies have already come up with hopeful solutions, sometimes including hand-held devices designed to help you sort out all the new possibilities. But Fuchs has an additional answer - a commercial channel like HBO that survives into the future and retains viewer loyalty by continuing to build their confidence in the probable entertainment value of the channel's new productions.

Network TV, according to one of the other panelists, does this job today by forming a kind of "cultural glue" for viewers. I don't think it's a very good glue, most of the time, but in the pop-cultural blizzard foreseen by Neuman, something like a network would offer a bit of shelter.

And maybe there won't be a lot of good new material to choose from anyway - but that's another column.

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