- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

When people talk about the future of television, they usually focus on high-definition picture, more channels, more-specialized channels, and home theater — that is, what we have now, only more so. Actually, something far more interesting may be coming.

Today what you can watch depends on what the industry chooses to put on the cable or to broadcast. Television being in the business of selling advertising, channels need to maximize the audience. To exaggerate only slightly, the industry has discovered that people will watch any television, no matter how bad, in preference to no television. So we get terrible programming, and the worst at times when we are most likely to want to watch.

Things don’t have to be this way and, shortly, I suspect, won’t be. Today you can listen to radio stations on the Internet. It’s nice if you live in Thailand and want to listen, static-free, to your hometown radio station (assuming that it is on the Web) or the BBC. Nice, but hardly astonishing.

Now, here is something that doesn’t look interesting at first, but is: If you go to, for example, the BBC site, you can click on a link that says “News” and listen to the news when you want to.

The BBC has its latest news program stored on a hard drive. Click the link, and you hear it from the beginning. The BBC is playing the news for you when you want it. You don’t have to come in at the middle of the program or listen when the station chooses to transmit it.

In principle, the same thing could be done with television. A television program can be stored on a server, which means a big hard drive attached to the Internet. The server can send the show, in digital form, over the Internet to you.

This isn’t practical now because of limited bandwidth. A television show, because it contains images, has a huge amount of digital information. Much of the Internet just can’t handle so many zeros and ones.

However, optical fiber can. For ages we have heard that fiber will be run to our homes, and then we essentially would be able to receive unlimited amounts of information. Companies have been stalling on doing it. They’ll get there sooner or later.

Television would suddenly become the cultural treasure chest that some expected it to be long ago. You could watch “Hamlet,” or symposia on human genetics, or obscure cult movies, as you choose. Once video-on-demand became possible and convenient, anything could be put on the Web: lectures on biochemistry from a university, for example.

You would have to pay for what you watched, but you pay now. I’d hope for pay-per-view at reasonable prices. I don’t want to be watching “King Lear” and have it interrupted by a commercial for adult diapers. But that isn’t a technical consideration.

A question perhaps more interesting: What would the effect be on the industry? Would people still come home from work and deliberately watch the same sitcoms they watch now? Some doubtless would. Presumably, some people watch witless programs because they like them. But what number? Others watch because for them bad TV is marginally preferable to none. They would head for greener pastures.

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