THE NEXT BIG REVOLUTION WILL HAPPEN IN YOUR LIVING ROOM
SATELLITES, YOU AND THE CBC
...Or your kitchen. Or your den, which could have its own computer within 10 years. This is the communications revolution that will change the way you read, cook, phone, think. Postmaster General Eric Kierans, who’s supposed to keep it under control, knows it will convulse some big institutions — including the good old CBC, which we examine in the next 10 pages
CANADA’S POSTMASTER GENERAL, Eric William Kierans, 54, has been handed one of the federal cabinet’s most difficult assignments. Early next year Kierans, the cheerfully pugnacious Quebecker who has already put in a busy career reforming, successively, McGill University’s School of Commerce, the Montreal Stock Exchange, the Quebec Revenue Department and the provincial Liberal Party, will take over a new Communications portfolio. At first glance, the job doesn’t seem so tough. To the Post Office, he will add staff from the Defense Department’s Telecommunications Branch — about 700 employees — another 700 experts in various branches of broadcasting from the Department of Transport, and one Crown company, Canadian Overseas Telecommunication Corporation. He will be required to weld these into one smoothly working unit — not too formidable a task for a man of Kierans’ administrative expertise. He will also be responsible for the launching and control of Canada’s first domesticcommunications satellite in the early 1970s, a much more challenging job but still within the reach of an energetic and intelligent man. Finally, he will be expected to prepare and carry out a communications policy for Canada that keeps pace with the nation’s technological development, and that, in my view, is just about impossible.
Kierans’ problem is that he will have to guide Canadian reaction to a succession of revolutionary developments — from books that can be broadcast and read off a screen, to a ring of satellites beaming U.S. TV programs directly into Canadian homes — over which Ottawa will have little practical control. With most of these innovations, no communications czar will be able to say, “Yes, we want this,” or, “No, we don’t want that.” At most, he will be able to say, “Well, now that the U.S. has decreed we shall have this and that, here’s what we should do about them.”
To grasp what is involved, peer forward about 10 years — certainly no more than two decades — to the changes likely to be wrought in Canadian life by developments already under way:
QUENTIN R. SMITH wrenches the top off another beer, hunches over the console of his home communicator and spins the television dial through its circle of channels. The stolid images and flat voice of the CBC, the news channel, flash by, but who wants to watch news? CTV. the public-affairs network, has some kinky professor talking about scrolls, the movie channel is playing a draggy German thing,, the financial channel has stock reports and the sports network is featuring ping-for-Pete’s-sake-pong. Ah, that’s more like it — a Bonanza rerun on the entertainment band. Quentin leans back, sucks his beer, sighs with contentment.
Upstairs, Quentin’s daughter Nisturtium is fi.t'shing her last class of the day on the education channel; downstairs, in the recreation room, Mrs. Smith, a culture buff, has just slipped the video record of an old Jerry Lewis Special onto the family’s third television set, and it doesn't look as if the washing and ironing will get done this afternoon after all.
Across the street, the Wenceslas T. Jones family is busy at the communicator, too. Wenceslas has just dialed the Toronto Daily Star, he is watching the editorials read out onto the living-room scanner and muttering imprecations at the dunderheads who run newspapers. (Why do they still call them news papers, anyway, when you read them on a screen?) Wenceslas, Jr., has slipped off to his room to scan a book. Well, not just any book; actually, he has dialed the public library and is having the riper passages from Fanny Hill fed to his bedroom screen. Mrs. Jones is ordering groceries through the Dial-A-Mart (“One Call Buys It All”), but with a distracted air; she is thinking of other things, thinking, especially, that she really must nag Wenceslas tonight about fixing the auto-toboggan in case anybody wants to go out tomorrow.
Oh, didn’t 1 tell you? The Joneses and the Smiths live in Frobisher Bay, NWT.
ADMITTEDLY, this is a projection, perhaps 10, perhaps 20 years into the future, but the technology for every element in this vignette is available today. These are not developments that could conceivably take place: they almost certainly will. Canada is already caught in a communications explosion that will make the invention of the printing press and the telephone seem like minor historical incidents. This explosion is sparked by changes occurring right now over our heads and under our feet.
Over our heads are the communications satellites. Spinning in a stationary orbit 22,300 miles in space, a satellite can blanket a continent with a signal relayed from the ground. It is as easy to broadcast to Baker Lake as to Toronto, as easy to telephone Tuktoyaktuk as Vancouver. There are already four international communications satellites aloft and, in the early 1970s, Canada will have her own domestic version. At first, it will carry four television channels or their equivalent (600 two-way telephone hook-ups occupy the same facilities as one color TV channel), but before long there will be as many as a dozen channels available. Signals from the satellite will be received by ground stations and relayed by microwave or cable to home receivers. All North America will live under a single television tent. Igloolik, meet Pa Cartwright.
Under our feet arc the coaxial cables. Today, the average Canadian home is linked to the outside by two wires, one serving hydro and the other the telephone. Add one more wire, a television cable, and the seeds of transformation are sown, for the point about cablevision is not that it brings in three American football games instead of one, but that the pable carries a broad band of reception that can be used for any kind of communication. Today’s cables transmit either 12 or 20 channels, and soon they will transmit 40, but nobody needs 40 channels for TV. Spares can be used to operate a computer, or a video-phone, or a read-out to take newspapers or magazines electronically. When a telephone can operate on one600th of a TV channel, the possibilities for communication over 40 channels become, literally, limitless.
To go with these major advances in the sky and under the ground, the communications industry is turning out new gadgets that can be marketed any time enough customers are willing to pay for them. One of the most talked-about of these gadgets is the video-phone, which links a small screen and camera to the telephone, but experts in the industry are cool to the video-phone. “It costs a lot and doesn't add much to communications,” says Gordon Thompson, a researcher and sort of one-man think-tank at the Northern Electric Company of Canada, which will build video-phones when the time comes. “All it means is that you peep through your knothole and I peep through mine.”
Thompson is much more excited about a device still in the planning stages, the Scribble phone, which would allow two people miles apart to see and write on the same space at /continued on page 76
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You’ll buy your own TV reruns
the same time, to underline passages on each other’s business reports, to doodle on each other’s margins and, in the jargon of the industry, “to share a common environment.”
“With the Scribble phone,” Thompson says, “two people a continent apart can interact.” And that’s comm unication.
Another revolutionary development in a more advanced state is a process for photographing print, reducing it to microdots and storing it on plastic sheets which can be retrieved and read by a computer linked to a scanner. In this way, 3,200 letter-sized pages of print can be stored on one four-by-six-inch piece of plastic. In the U.S.. the National Cash Register Company, holders of the patents, are already engaged on a five-million-dollar contract to micro-photograph 14,000 pages of Ford Auto Parts catalogues onto seven transparencies. Someday, libraries may copy all their books on to plastic and link them to a central computer so that any reader anywhere can telephone, not only the library, but also the book and page he wants .
Yet another new wrinkle is a process to record and market TV pro-
grams exactly like long-playing records. The Columbia Broadcasting System, which owns U.S. rights to this process, hopes to have BVRs — Beam Video Records — for sale next year, at $14 for a one-hour color program and seven dollars for blackand-white. The customer buys a small plastic box, like a film cassette, which clips to a reader on the TV set. If the thought of watching the same episode of The Mothers-in-Law 20 times makes you blanch, think of the possibilities for educational TV. Classes will no longer be tied to taking educational programs when the networks are ready to send them; any class, or individual, can buy and play the best instruction available at any time.
To say that the implications of this communications explosion are tremendous is like calling Mount Everest a tallish hill. Consider one tiny aspect of the coming change; the directcommunications satellite.
The satellites now in space, like the first one Canada plans to launch, put forth a feeble signal, which must be received at a ground station and amplified for transmission by wire or microwave. The ground station serves as a control point where a vigilant gov-
ernment can see, for instance, that TV programs beamed into Canadian homes carry 55 percent Canadian content. But what happens when the satellite has enough power to bypass the ground relays and broadcast directly to a small antenna in your attic? Then, as J. P. Gilmore, VicePresident, Planning, of the CBC told me, “we have an entirely new ball game.”
The technical problem can be mastered; it is simply a question of adding more solar batteries to produce the necessary power (which means adding as much as one and a half tons to a 500-pound communications satellite, and increasing the launching cost) or developing an atomic-powered battery for space use. Experts consulted by Maclean’s agree that one or other of these solutions could be applied within the next five years by the U.S. What this means for Canadians is that, before long, three American TV networks will be continuously available across Canada at the flick of a switch. What will happen then to the Canadian networks?
I put this question to Gordon Keeble, president of CTV, and he replied bluntly, “Canadian broadcasting as it operates today cannot survive a body blow like that. Something has got to change.”
As a matter of fact, Canadian broadcasting is already taking a buffeting from cable-vision, according to a survey conducted by the CBC. The survey found that when cables bring new channels into a town or city, viewers do not spend more time in front of their sets because there is more to watch; they simply divide up the available time — about 22 hours per viewer per week — among five or six stations, instead of devoting it to one or two. Where the cable-borne signals originate with U.S. stations, the share of the Canadian audience watching Canadian TV drops by an average 22 percent. Even when the American stations are already available in the area, the cable with its better signal more than doubles the share of the audience obtained by U.S. broadcasters. So far. cable-vision only reaches about 360,000 Canadian homes — eight percent of all homes with television — but the industry is enjoying spectacular growth, and Canadian broadcasters are clearly going to have to act to meet this tough new competition.
“What we have to do,” explains the CBC’s Gilmore, “is to make programs so damn good people will have to watch them no matter what else is available.”
Gilmore speaks with the good cheer of a man who knows that if cablevision becomes too serious a threat, it can be cut off by action of the Canadian Radio and Television Commission. which licenses the cables. The CRTC’s mandate requires it to protect Canadian broadcasting, and the commission’s Canadian-content requirements work as a protective tariff, but no tariff can reach to the vault of heaven when direct-communications satellites become available. When that day comes, much of the service of our two major networks will become superfluous.
“If I were a broadcaster," comments Harry J. Boyle, vice-chairman
of the CRTC, “I'd be troubled."
And they are. When I asked Gilmore what the CBC intends to do about direct-communications satellites, he told me, “We have had some pretty tight thinking sessions about this and frankly we haven't come up with an answer. We don't know of any broadcasting system in the world that has come up with an answer, either.”
Over at CTV. President Gordon Keeble is at least willing to have a
try. Keeble suggests an annual license fee of, say, $200. might be levied on the antenna used to receive satellite signals, and the money applied to support Canadian broadcasting. However, he acknowledges that such a scheme would not go down well with viewers, and is not hopeful that it will be adopted. Much more likely is that broadcasters will concentrate on one aspect of their craft — devoting a whole station to sports or news or finance — to deliver a measurable slice
of the available audience to an advertiser. Or. Keeble suggests, the networks may go out of broadcasting altogether, and concentrate on producing programs for sale to a new broadcasting industry.
The only certainty is that changes are coming.
Of course, broadcasters are not the only ones affected by new communications techniques. Canada has no national newspaper today, but w'e could have one tomorrow. A publisher in
Learning by TV and phone may replace books and schools
Montreal or Toronto or Winnipeg or Vancouver could package national news, features, editorials and advertising, and feed this package across the country as a broad-band transmission. Local publishers would insert pages of regional news and advertising and print the paper in the ordinary way for home-to-home distribution. Before long, it may not even be necessary to distribute the paper physically; it may simply be fed into a scanner and read off on a home screen.
Perhaps, in the electronic world we are creating, schools will lose their importance. With the best books available by telephone ami the best instruction standing by on tape, anyone, at any age, may be able to educate himself.
Already one Ottawa public school has found that an ordinary telephone can expand the student’s information -gathering ability enormously. A grade - six class was supplied with a telephone and a government directory and every time the pupils ran into a problem not covered by regular instruction, they called an expert. Once, they had difficulty making a plaster casting of the foot of the class mascot, a guinea pig, and called an authority in the National Museum, who soon set them straight. Later, they began to worry about the sex of their pet, and phoned a scientist at the Department of Agriculture.
“It’s easy,” he told them,
“a guinea-pig’s genitals are concealed by a fold of skin. Turn the animal over and press it lightly on the stomach: if a penis appears, you've got a male.”
Now, that’s something you can’t find in Dick and Jane.
Information - gathering by phone or television or book - scanner doesn’t require a class or a classroom; it can just as easily be done by an individual.
Of course, the social aspects of education would be missed in any move to individual self-instruction, but that doesn't mean it won’t happen if it makes sense economically. Commenting on this possibility, CTV President Gordon Keeble says. “It would be ironical if the end result of increased communications were to be increased loneliness.”
The point about all these changes, from micro-printing to the Beam Video Record, is that they are coming whether we want them or not. There is no good fairy who can say. for instance, that a direct-communications satellite should be delayed because it might dilute Canadian culture. The
nations likely to launch such a satellite — Russia and the U.S. — will not be susceptible to appeals made on behalf of Canada’s cultural integrity. I he stakes arc too high; they involve prestige, propaganda and cash. Entirely new trading patterns may be established according to the availability of broadcast satellites, for when all the world becomes linked to TV, it
will make an enormous difference if the images beamed over Africa or South America or Canada are pushing Ford cars or French wines or Russian refrigerators.
The very language a satellite speaks may be crucial in the world’s continuing struggle for cultural dominance, and this is why Quebec has shown such an interest, including a pledge of hard cash, in a European satellite scheduled for launching in 1971. As the late Premier Daniel Johnson told reporters, “We just want to be sure
that somebody up there speaks French.”
At the moment, work on a directcommunications satellite has been slowed in the U.S. by the vigorous work of a broadcasting lobby in Washington (one Ottawa cynic told me, “Don’t forget Mrs. Lyndon Johnson owns some TV stations”), but the Russians face no such lobby and any
move on their part into this field will force the Americans to act. Dr. John Chapman, director of the federal government’s Planning Group for Communications, told me, “The question is not whether we’re going to have a direct-broadcast satellite, but how is this monster to be managed?”
Nobody seems to know.
Since the time of the Industrial Revolution, mankind has been reacting — and reacting slowly — to the results of technological change. It was decades after machines created the
hell of the early factories before society responded with factory laws, and although our capacity to adapt has increased, so has the rate of technological advance; the gap between challenge and response is, if anything, wider today than it was 200 years ago.
That pattern is not likely to be altered by the arrival of the Communications Age. Although a number of companies have reacted to the new world of electronics — MacleanHunter Limited, to take one nearby example, has broadened its interests from magazine publishing to broadcasting and cable-vision — industry as a whole has been slow to move. Newspapers for instance, stiM print stock quotations in their early editions that are out of date before the papers can be delivered.
Not surprisingly, the rate of an industry’s response tends to be tied to the amount of money it has committed to the old way of doing things. Newspapers, since I have already singled them out, are generally reluctant to consider the implications of electronics simply because they have so much capital involved in printing presses (one exception is the Montreal Star, whose publishers have formed a holding company, Infocore, to explore investment in other communications fields). Canada’s telephone companies, with about $80 million invested in a microwave network, showed very little interest in a communications satellite until a partnership of Niagara Television of Hamilton and Power Corporation of Montreal put in a bid for a third TV network, NTV, to broadcast from a satellite they were willing to build themselves. Suddenly, the telephone companies, discovered the fascination of satellites, and now, Bell Telephone, through its manufacturing subsidiary, Northern Electric, hopes to land at least part of the $ 100-million contract to build Canada’s first domestic satellite. “If it hadn’t been for NTV,” an Ottawa expert in telecommunications told me, “Bell would still be sitting on its bottom.”
Slow as it is, industry has moved faster than government, and it was partly in an attempt to change this state of affairs that Eric Kierans was given the Communications portfolio. His arrival has been received in both the industry and the public service with enthusiasm. Dr. J. R. Whitehead, Principal Science Adviser to the Privy Council, told me, “It’s fortunate that at a time when decisions have to be made, a man who can make them has been appointed.”
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“Arswers,” snorts Kierans, “I don’t even know the questions.”
,Vith such a buildup, it would be /omforting to report that Kierans has slipped on his new duties like an old coat, and is even now shaking out the sleeves; but the impression I received in a number of talks with the Postmaster General is one of what I can only call energetic bafflement. I am not speaking now of Kierans’ mandate to refinance the Post Office or oversee plans for a communications satellite; he tore into those jobs with a will, in the first case hiking postal rates and paving the way for a Crown corporation to take over the Post Office, in the second fighting off a bid by the Defense Department to take control of the satellite and drawing up the corporation that will manage it. These tasks are well in hand, but what Kierans has not been able to do is to propose solutions to the broader problems raised by the communications explosion. When 1 first called on him in midsummer, he asked me to come back in several weeks — he just hadn’t had time to think about communications in a general sense. When I went back, he told me it would be several months before the government was prepared to assume a public stance on the kinds of issues raised in this article. The brutal fact is that neither Kierans nor anyone else has answers to the fundamental question: What should Canada do about directbroadcast satellites?
“Answers,” Kierans snorted, “hell, I don’t even know all the questions.”
He sent me to see Dr. John Chapman. director of the Planning Group for Communications, who told me, “Most of the major decisions are out of Canadian hands.”
This doesn’t mean the Canadian government can do nothing — one of the Planning Group's earliest recommendations was for a long-range policy study — but it does mean that the experts and their political masters are just as overwhelmed by the onrush of technology as the rest of us; Kierans, instead of wrapping himself in comforting clichés, has merely said what he thinks.
As this article unfolds. I seem to be drifting into a pessimistic bias, the bias of a nontechnical person lost in a technical jungle (and mindful of some of the strange animals that jungle has produced in the recent past), the bias of a print-oriented person toward an electronics-oriented future. 1 have not
said, for instance, that a communications satellite will help open the Canadian north by making it a more hospitable place to live, although that is likely, or that a direct-broadcast satellite may open U.S. markets to Canadian programs, although that is possible. Neither of these hopes seems as important to me as the changes that
are going to come over my world in the next decade, and over which I can have no control. 1 suppose 1 am reflecting the sense of alienation common to our time, an alienation not merely of man from man. but year from year. Once, when my son Craig was about four years old. he asked me if they had television when 1 was a
little boy. and 1 had to tell him, no, as a matter of fact, they did not.
“Gee, Daddy.” he asked, “did they have houses?”
At first. 1 thought the remark was funny; now, I am not so sure. To Craig, a world without television was as unthinkable as a world without houses, and 1 draw little comfort from the fact that by the time he has children old enough to ask questions, his world will be even more alien to them than mine is to him. ★