Television

THE FUTURE OF TV

Bill MacVicar August 18 1980
Television

THE FUTURE OF TV

Bill MacVicar August 18 1980

THE FUTURE OF TV

Television

Bill MacVicar

Rather than skirmishes in the so-

called electronic revolution, it all seems more like a return to the rough-and-tumble days of frontier justice. In the Northern Ontario lumber town of Longlac, infuriated loggers fell trees to barricade roads and search all passing cars. They’re looking for a videotape machine—heart of a pirate station that was the town’s only source of television—that has been seized by minions of the federal department of communications. In British Columbia, flatbed trucks and even old airplanes carry dish antennas, paid for by out-ofpocket contributions, to isolated northern communities, enabling them to bring in, again illegally, such U.S. “superstations” as Atlanta’s WTBS, which beam their powerful signals across the continent via satellite. The mayor of Geraldton, Ont., Michael Power, says he would deputize the entire town’s population to thwart any attempt by federal authorities to seize his community’s dish antenna.

The scattered incidents are a sign of the times, evidence of a widespread and powerful desire to plug into TV’s technological revolution. They make dramatic headlines, but the principal theatre of battle lies elsewhere, in a screen war being conducted according to the most brittle of 20th-century protocols. It’s a battle for the time and money of the television viewer. Capturing the viewer, to be sure, has ever been the goal of programming; audiences are like POWs to be sold to advertisers. But in 1980, given unprecedented arsenals of technological innovations, revolutionary strategies are being plotted and carried out with little regard for the niceties of those Queensberry rules called the Ratings Game.

The multiplicity of programs and services available—or about to be available—on TV screens pits traditional broadcasters against enormously expanded cable systems, satellite-beamed superstations, pay-TV suppliers, home computer systems and more. From the Canadian viewers’ standpoint, it’s more than just a battle among various industries for profits from a new electronic pie; it álso squares off public demand for programs and services against bombastic, outmoded philosophies of broadcasting administered by the federal communications department and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

The burgeoning pirate transmission industry in the North shows that Canadians take their TV seriously and will fight to improve it. As the revolution takes hold, the Toronto-based CanWest Communications Corp. recently warned the CRTC,“Canadian broadcasters will face new competition for set time.” Each supplier is going to have to

try much harder for time on your TV screen. This heightened competition is acknowledged by CTV’s vice-president of engineering and operations, Joe Colson, when he says: “The state of the art is changing so rapidly that you have to plan what you’re going to do at least five years in advance, then hope to God you’re right.”

The new atmosphere of competition has even made allies of the old rivals CBC and CTV, who struck an alliance to try to keep interlopers away from the lucrative new territory of pay-television. Cable television giants and telecommunications networks are in a race to determine who will be first to introduce fibre-optics technology into Canadian homes, bringing with it the capability of offering 50, 100, perhaps an unlimited choice of channels.

Satellite-beamed signals from the southern U.S., though illegal, bring the only television to remote outbacks of Canada where even the CBC has not penetrated. The proliferation of home computers (there are 25,000 to 30,000 already operating in Canada) will increasingly commandeer the television screen for games-playing, perusal of print materials, or business and financial transactions. At its heâdquarters in Hull, Que., the CRTC struggles valiantly to keep up with the systems and their implications for Canada, meanwhile hearing brief and counterbrief from the host of rival claimants. Under its new chairman, Queen’s University political science professor John Meisel, the CRTC has never been busier than in 1980. During most of the spring it heard voluminous submissions from broadcasters and cable operators on the subjects of satellite transmission, extension of service to the North and pay-TV. Though final recommendations have not been issued, Meisel has cautiously predicted that Canadians would have pay-TV “within five years.” With pressure from producers and viewers, that timetable could be shortened. Says Ted Rogers, head of Canada’s largest cable company, Canadian Cablesystems Ltd.: “Pay-TV is here—Saskatchewan already has it. There’s no question in my mind that pay-TV will be fully operational in Canada by late next year because of its overwhelming success in the States and the increasing demand on the part of Canadians.”

Whoever wins and whoever loses the current revolution, the nature of television is about to be changed forever. Since its general introduction in the U.S. in the late 1940s (small-scale experiments began mainly in New York City in the 1930s but were abandoned in wartime) and the creation of CBC TV in 1952, TV has grown older much in the manner of Dorian Gray: it has become a little more decadent, a little more controversial, but it stayed pretty much the same through the decades.

Until 1977. That is the year the bottom fell out. For the first time ever, the viewing public declined. It was a possibility that had never been imagined, and it was more than a fluke. In the U.S., television’s^ onetime golden boy, Fred Silverman, now atop NBC’s peacock throne, is proving incapable of halting his network’s slide toward being the Chrysler Corporation of the airwaves. The days of the complete hegemony of the networks—the three U.S. giants, the CBC and CTV—were over.

The common wisdom on this decline, voiced by armchair critics unaware of or unconvinced by the industry’s overriding axiom, is that programming has deteriorated. But it hasn’t; in fact, television’s “worst” programming continues to draw the highest audience shares. There were other excuses put forth, but the truth was that the underlying rationale for scheduling broke down. No longer was television the mass hypnotist that developed its own loony sociology (movie houses closing down on Tuesday nights when Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater was aired; anxious hydraulic engineers adjusting to the precipitous drops in water pressure as thousands of toilets flushed simultaneously during football game commercials).

First of all, there was the slow growth of small local stations and educational outlets, usually relegated to the UHF frequencies. At best they offered, on the one hand, antiquated reruns of primetime discards or wartime music-hall farces from Britain or, on the other, wildlife documentaries and talking heads. They were not much, but they were alternatives. But nothing was destined to change the archetypal structure of television so much as the spread

of cable. With cable and a converter box, a Toronto home can receive 11 Canadian and five U.S. stations, plus cable-originated shows and services. The closest Canadian rival is Vancouver, where a converter will bring in about half as many channels.

Now, with the development of fibreoptic technology, TV’s range will be unhampered by geography; sets will be able to offer as many stations as satellites can beam their way. The first company to see the profits to be made from satellite transmission was Time Inc.’s subsidiary, Home Box Office, one of half a dozen pay-TV services now functioning in the U.S. In 1975, it began to offer a schedule of blockbuster movies, entertainment specials and soft porn to cable operators across the country who could then sell it to subscribers for an additional monthly fee. The number of viewers willing to pay for quality fare uncluttered by commercials was impressive indeed.

Skeptics gripe that television is television, that garbage multiplied by 10 is just so much more garbage. But that fails to take into account a change in the tone of the mass media that has begun to reach even television. It has been happening quietly in radio—which

everyone thought would be consigned to oblivion with the advent of television— for almost 20 years. But with programming designed to draw smaller, loyal audiences, the number of North American stations has almost doubled. The approach, coinciding with changes in the print media as mass periodicals fold and speciality journals flourish, has come to be known as “narrowcasting.”

Television is following suit. There is

no more flamboyant a symbol of the new television than Atlanta’s brash Ted Turner, champion sailor, owner of the baseball Braves and operator of the continent’s first satellite-carried superstation, which supplies much of the sparse video fare to Canada’s isolated Northland. In June,Turner fired his second salvo—a 24-hour all-news network available by cable in 2.2 million U.S. homes.

Turner is not alone. There are several religious networks operating in the U.S., offering salvation interspersed with pleas for cash. There are others aimed squarely at the large black and Hispanic minorities. In Canada, expectations of the legalization of pay-TV have resulted in the formation of a company to produce and distribute highquality arts programming. The CBC is planning to introduce a second noncommercial, prime-time service in French and English by January, 1982, to cover special-interest areas such as business, economy, science, the arts and public affairs. In each case the assumption is that large, untapped audiences are waiting for fare that the commercial networks have given them only sporadically, if at all.

But none of the changes in television will be more profound than the marriage of the television screen to other marvels of the electronic age. The presence of home computer terminals (which boosters say will be as ubiquitous as color TV by 1985 and cost little more) will turn the television screen into much more than an entertainment console. Telidon, a Canadian-developed two-way system, has already found markets in South America and Europe and is being tested in the Washington, D.C., area. By pushing a few buttons, subscribers are connected to the bibliographical resources of the Washington Post and Star, to the district’s public library and the Smithsonian Institution and to the files of several U.S. government agencies. Computer technology can bring any number of capabilities to the television screen. For instance, airline schedules can be scanned from home, reservations made and confirmed, even tickets purchased by TV console. The computer will take Canada a long way toward the cashless society. TV screens will serve as electronic bulletin boards, bringing timely reminders from ourselves or from correspondents a continent away (making inroads, as well, into the postal and telephone systems). Videocassettes will teach foreign languages, and there will be no more futile flipping through listings for a halfway-decent late movie. With long lists of classics on file, the viewer will punch in a few numbers and settle back and watch 1938’s Bringing Up Baby with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Of course, the bill for two hours’ worth of screwball bliss will appear on the next monthly statement.

However much this video amusement arcade delights viewers with the cash to play, it has thrown the once-complacent industry into near panic. Executives at the U.S. networks flatly refuse to discuss it, meanwhile diverting funds into videodisc manufacture and the production of shows to be sold to cable suppliers. In one sense, the large networks maintain their enviable positions; they know the. business of television better than any of their upstart rivals and they have the financial clout to consolidate their expertise where permitted by law to do so. CTV’s Joe Colson says the

network is ready to move in any number of directions if it gets a federal green light. “Generally speaking, CTV will continue to operate as it is. But we hope to be on a north-south satellite within two or three years and can be totally involved in production and distribution for pay-TV. In the field of narrowcasting, we plan to look increasingly to our affiliates for regional coverage and hope to encourage a certain amount of native production to appeal to audiences in the North.”

The main stumbling block to television change is federal bureaucracy, besieged on all sides by special-interest groups which lobby for rulings that will benefit them. Things were simpler in the old days. Regulatory bodies, from the days of the Aird royal commission on radio in 1928, came into existence to save the narrow broadcast frequency spectrum from utter chaos. Broadcasters were issued a licence, a frequency and a geographical area to be served with an assigned wattage. Certain conditions (no obscenity, no treason) were attached, but the commissions were there to ensure that radio, and later television, could operate at all.

But, as is the way with bureaucracies, its mandate grew like Topsy. In 1968, the reconstituted CRTC brought cable suppliers under its purview, though the airwaves were unsullied by cable transmission. Even so, that would have made sense had the commission seen to it that original suppliers of programs were reimbursed for any “intellectual properties” picked up by cable concerns. But this has not been done. Rather, the CRTC has ordered U.S. commercials stripped from broadcasts simultaneously carried on Canadian channels and replaced with domestic advertising. (In the U.S., the CRTC’s counterpart, the Federal Communications Commission, has just freed cable interests from all but minimal strictures.) The advent of a new medium has always caused crises for copyright laws drawn up principally for the printed word. Stars of Hollywood’s pre-1948 “Golden Age” received not a cent of royalties when their films were sold by the studios to the networks, and just this summer a strike by members of the Screen Actors Guild, demanding terms to ensure royalties from new modes of distribution, shut down almost all film and television production in Hollywood. “The key issue,” says veteran film actor Walter Matthau, “is some kind of participation in videocassette and cable TV, which is the future. There may not be movies in 10 years, and if actors don’t have a share we’ll be cut out.”

For Canadian broadcasters, one key issue is whether the CRTC has outlived its usefulness. For instance, David Lint, director of planning for the CBC’s English services division, argues that, as a result of the revolution in broadcast modes, the CRTC’s basis for regulation has been diminished. “We’ll have some broadcast transmitters around for decades, I suppose, but the question we have to ask now is, ‘Do we wish to continue regulation to serve some other end?’ ”

To questions like that, Meisel answers that the CRTC has no choice. “Parliament has written that function into our charter [that it is the CRTC’s mandate to “safeguard, strengthen and enrich the cultural, political, social and economic fabric” of Canada] and those are our marching orders.” Tall orders they are, especially as Meisel admits that since he took the commission’s helm eight months ago he has discovered that he has been unable to “concentrate on the broad, big issues that we are confronting—pay-television, satellites, federal and provincial aspects of what we do in regard to national identity and so on— the questions that really are at the heart of what we’re doing.” Instead, says the chairman, he is “constantly dealing with daily crises, putting out fires, tackling very specific questions.” The next task Meisel must try his hand at, beginning next month, is an attic-to-tiasement review of the Canadian-content regulations, which he admits are “not achieving their purpose.” Canadians still choose overwhelmingly o to watch U.S.-produced programs, and a ? recent poll of Ontario residents on their § legal rights showed that well over half g of respondents had assimilated erron| eous information from watching YanS kee cops’n’cars screechers. However deplorable such ill-schooling may be, the days when it could be stopped—or at least mitigated—by tribunals sitting in Ottawa are slipping away. “What are they going to do?” wonders the CBC’s Lint. “From a pragmatic viewpoint they seem powerless. There’s no way they can build an electronic curtain around the country.”

But the other side of the coin is that, with narrowcasting and an increasing decentralization of the television industry, Canada stands to gain more than it will lose. Examples:

• Telidon has shown its superiority to British and European systems in the international market.

• The Palace, an old-fashioned variety show produced in Hamilton,Ont., has been sold to 43 countries, 78 U.S. independent stations and33 more in Canada.

• Showtime, the second-largest U.S. pay-TV outfit (an affiliate is now operating in Saskatchewan), regularly uses the excellent facilities of Toronto’s CFTO studios (the local CTV affiliate) to produce specials.

Most promising of all, with hundreds of channels competing for viewers’ attention, will be the boom in local talent. There will be enough entrepreneurs, enough programmers in the new television for some to take a chance on something different without worries of offending their public or their advertisers, without pressures to lure a minimum fraction of the audience. The electronic explosion should guarantee that video entertainment is taken out of the hands of the market researchers and restored to instinctive showmen.

For the foreseeable future, the networks will continue to be a motivating force in television—by supplying the bottom-line material for the large segment of the audience unable to afford the “frills” and by putting capital into their own production and recycling companies. But the proliferation of video suppliers must inevitably broaden the spectrum of taste. By virtue of voting with their push buttons and, in the case of pay-TV, with their dollars, viewers will be able to circumvent the caution of advertisers. Theatre, ballet and opera buffs will be able to indulge their tastes more often than two or three times a year and sports fans will be able to watch everything from local high-school football matches to South American soccer wars. Cheaply produced, specialized public affairs discussions, freed from the humiliation of taking backseats to expensive, audiencegrabbing variety specials, will have their day in the sun. Innovative shows, such as United States, axed after six showings by NBC, will have opportunities to develop audiences slowly and have a better chance of recouping prohibitive production costs with a wide market for syndicating reruns. Much television will drone on unchanged, as it has since the debuts of The Honeymooners and Front Page Challenge, that sleepless zombie of the Canadian airwaves. What change there will be can only be for the best.