Wanted: A TV Future That Leaves You in Peace

IT'S been one of those days for a certain worker, let's say a refrigerator repair man. There were demanding customers, missing parts - you know. Finally he gets home and flops down on the couch. He has just enough energy to grab the TV remote control, push the ``power'' button, and flip through a few stations until he gets one that looks good.

Then what?

Then he wants to sit there, half-aware of the screen, letting sounds and images knock on the door of his consciousness as he relaxes before dinner. He may want to change channels now and then, but he does not want to push a lot of different buttons, identify areas of interest on the screen and enlarge them, or do anything else that requires close attention.

He does not, in short, want to be interactive. He was interactive at work. At home, he wants to sit there, contentedly passive, letting the screen do the work.

It's a point that some recalcitrant viewers have tried to send to electronic zealots for years now. Today, even some of the companies testing futuristic interactive systems are sensing this reactionary attitude. In Hartford, Conn., for instance, Southern New England Telephone began an experiment last December that lets a few hundred cable subscribers select from a list of 1,650 films and other fare.

But the company hesitates to go beyond this step, and one of its executives has stated his concern that ``you can overload customers with a bunch of services that are too complicated.'' He must have realized that the industry was getting to be like one of those social directors on a cruise ship who's not happy unless everyone participates.

Some months ago on ABC's ``Good Morning, America,'' a fellow demonstrated the wonderful world of interactive TV. Excitedly he showed the interviewer, Spencer Christian, some of the ways future viewers might navigate the coming media superhighway. He touted new devices and rhapsodized about how involved viewers could become.

But Christian wasn't buying it. Oh, he was jovial enough, but he kept saying, ``I don't want to do all that stuff. I just want to sit there and watch!''

Christian felt he was speaking for many viewers, and he was right. He didn't want his TV to have a demanding life of its own, like a pet. He had a message for the communications entrepreneurs who see America as a nation of electronic overachievers itching to explore a wilderness of niche programming: ``Back off!''

Channel surfing may be a viewer's inviolable right, but surfing can become drowning when selecting channels is a time-consuming end in itself. It's bad enough getting through the channels in some large cities.

At a conference about the future of TV a couple of years ago, I heard a friendly argument between a futurist and the head of a cable channel. The futurist thought channels would become obsolete, because viewer choice would be so fragmented that you'd have to pick a specific show to watch - maybe a favorite past episode from a series.

But the cable man - rightly, I felt - said that in the blizzard of choices, viewers would need channels as home bases, places to alight where past experience told them they'd get something good and not have to invest hours sorting through possibilities.

Otherwise, a whole new industry may be needed: the TV viewing consultant game. Friends, its ads might say: Are you fazed by 500 channels, daunted by dozens of choices? Let our friendly viewing specialists help you overcome your fear of the screen in the privacy of your home!

Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

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