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West Germans take peek at future via know-it-all television screens

"The future begins this weekend," proclaimed the headline in the Hamburg daily Die Welt. Or least it does in West Berlin and Dusseldorf, where TV subscribers now have 24-hour living-room access to stock market trends, soccer scores, and mail-order catalogs.

As of June 1 the West German post office "field test" of individualized TV information is in full swing. By the mid-1980s the post office expects to have a million customers.

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The press is simple. As Die Welt envisions it, Herr Meier comes home from the late shift at 11:34, dials 4003 on his phone, and asks what's happening with the hostages in Iran, how his bank account is holding up, and what the prospects are for a quick vacation in the Canary Islands.

Well before midnight he learns that the hostages are still being held, he himself is solvent, and the Canaries are fully booked from the 9th to 15th of the month but would be happy to accommodate Herr Meier and his wife from the 16 th on, breakfast and supper included, for 645 deutsche marks.

He has barely finished making his reservation when his TV cheerfully announces, "Good evening, Herr Meier," and transmits birthday greetings from a friend. So far all this has cost Herr Meier is 46 pfennig (45 cents) for two eight-minute phone calls, the price of all his TV, and the negligible five deutsche marks ($2.80) monthly rent for his modem (modulator-demodulator) link from his telephone to his TV.

During the three-year experiment the remaining costs will be borne by the post office and 400 firms that have their information plugged into the new system.

As the new era dawns, West Germans seem skeptical about the concept. In the Dusseldorf area the post office solicited half a million customers -- and got only 3,000. In Berlin it has only attracted 3,000 as well. Like the British, who have kept a polite distance from their pioneer "Prestel" system, West German TV owners are showing a distinct preference for old cowboy flicks over informational text or graphics.

The restraint may change when customers can call for local gasthof menus, theater and movie schedules, apartment rental floor plans, prospective garden furniture -- virtually anything in the fully computerized consumer future.

But by then there may also be a few West Germans who will be willing to pay a premium just to keep their know-it-all TV sets silent.

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