Editorial The future is now

Forget about 150-odd television channels. And forget about so-called 'Death Stars' because the truth is that the technology already exists to provide about 1,000 television channels.And we are just a few technical tweaks away from something called 'video-on-demand,' a new age...

Forget about 150-odd television channels. And forget about so-called ‘Death Stars’ because the truth is that the technology already exists to provide about 1,000 television channels.

And we are just a few technical tweaks away from something called ‘video-on-demand,’ a new age in which computers will be hooked up to television sets so that viewers can randomly select the shows they want to see. It means every tv viewer can potentially become his or her own tv programmer. In this fast-approaching video nirvana people will not only be able to choose what they watch, but also when.

Their selection of tv programs will come from a spectrum of alternatives about as broad as one’s imagination, from what we know now as network fare to new specialized niche market programming such as shows for seniors, or an all-infomercial network.

These were some of the mind-numbing notions that were presented recently to a small industry group by William Croasdale, Los Angeles-based president of the National Broadcast Division of Western International Media, a media planning and buying company with an office in Toronto. Croasdale specializes in network television.

Yet for all of the technological complexity that Croasdale’s portrait conjured up in people’s minds, his message  or, rather, his advice  on how to make some sense of all this was surprisingly simple.

The people who will control television in the future, if they do not already, are those who control the programming, he said.

The writers, producers and studio heads who create the product that turns viewers on.

On the face of it, his observation seems almost trite. But in a way, it really is that simple: for all of the space age advances in television distribution and delivery systems, it is, ultimately, programming that dictates what people watch. It is often easy to lose sight of this rather basic, but no less important point, especially when contemplating the overwhelming prospect of a 1,000-channel universe.

Regardless of what technology can be made to do, it is not of much use if people will not use it. The question remains: how many consumers really want to be their own programmers? And how many of these new programming services can viewers be reasonably expected to sample? Croasdale gave such thoughts some perspective when he observed that it would take the average consumer a several hours just to sort through 1,000 tv listings.

One other truism about the television medium that tends to get overlooked when the discussion strays into talks of zipping and zapping and the availability of hundreds of channels, is the fact that this electronic box, invented more than 50 years ago and originally envisioned as an aid to educators, has easily become the most pervasive and powerful of the media mix.

People are watching tv now more than ever before, which means marketers have a communications tool with unprecedented potential. The complicated part comes in figuring out how best to use it.