The promise of literate programming on cable is being fulfilled in its early stages. An estimated 18 million Americans are currently absorbing a wide range of cultural performances in their living rooms.
While CBS Cable premiered last month with a variety of worthwhile literate shows, already in place and serving up a hefty portion of arts programming are two other cultural channels: Bravo and ARTS. In addition, Home Box Office and Showtime, two basically movie pay-TV services, are also offering some fine original programming mixed in among their pop movies.
CBS Cable (delivered free to more than 3 million households), newest of the nonpay groups, is airing this month, December, and January a play written especially for Ralph Richardson by leading British playwright David Storey. ''Early Days'' was a great critical success in London, Toronto, and Washington but never made it to New York.
''Early Days'' is an astonishing near-monologue in which a senile (or, as the British say ''gaga'') public servant recalls and imagines events of his youth. It is an acting tour de force for Sir Ralph, a unique theatrical experience for cable viewers.
Showtime, a pay-TV service with around 2 million subscribers, shows mostly films but is doing some interesting offbeat programming as well. During the past month and due for rerun soon is an exciting production of Eugene O'Neil's ''Hughie,'' starring Jason Robards. ''Hughie'' is a superb character sketch, vividly enacted by Mr. Robards. Unlike ''Early Days,'' which was filmed in a studio, ''Hughie'' was filmed in a theater, complete with audience reaction. Each method works in its own way - and cable experiment with drama has been moved two giant steps forward.
ARTS (Alpha Repertory Television Service) is a free channel with more than 5 million subscribers, and it has been trying a whole range of performance programming. During this there has been a creative drive series, with Melba Moore as narrator. Early on she demonstrated a heretofore unknown voice trained in the classics singing a Poulenc song. Perhaps the most innovative part of the program was a visualization of ''Cathedral at Amiens'' by Poulenc.
Bravo, a pay channel with 120,000 subscribers, has been doing some fascinating programming aimed at a narrow segment of TV viewers. Coming up next month is a Glenda Jackson film retrospective, complete with a Glenda Jackson interview and a ''cable sneak preview'' of one of her latest films, probably ''Stevie.''
Home Box Office, the largest of the pay-TV services with 71/2 million subscribers, airs mainly current cinema, but has been trying other types of programming recently. Airing right now is a Ms magazine documentary called ''She's Nobody's Baby Now.'' It is a feminist-eye-view of recent history, a film in which Julia Child is cited as a woman who proved that homemaking didn't have to be perfect. The film is a one-sided political tract, filled with simplistic although amusing interpretations of the world by Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda. The newsreel footage is especially good - and the film is the kind which would have difficulty finding a paying audience other than the HBO subscribers.
It is encumbent upon viewers to be certain that the unusual quality of the early months is maintained. Remember that cable system presidents are still very concerned about audience reaction - so phone them about adding the specific services you prefer. And don't hesitate to write or phone the individual service presidents about the quality of their programming. Electronic newspapers
Is there an electronic newspaper in our future?
Will we be able to push a button and call up on our TV screen the major international news of the day? The top sports news, etc.?
The answer to those questions in the past has been: maybe. Recent trial tests in such places as Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles, and London have changed the answer to: probably. Now - with the improved technologies reflected in systems with such confusing names as videotex, Videotext, teletext, Teletex, Prestel, and Viewdata - the answer is: absolutely, although it may supplement and not replace the print version.
In general, teletext and videotex are the generic terms for all of the various trademarked systems which transmit print and graphics. As a viewer-subscriber, one would be able to select the kind of material desired by means of a push-button decoder which will probably not look very different than present pocket calculators.
Since April 8, 1981, CBS has been broadcasting an 80-page teletext magazine over KNXT in Los Angeles, testing the feasibility of teletext as an information and advertising medium. Now it has been announced that CBS in conjunction with AT&T will test a videotex computer-based home information system in Ridgefield, N.J. Starting in the fall of 1982, for seven months, 200 households in that city will be equipped with home terminals on which they will be able to call up specialized data.
Several types of two-way services will be offered, according to CBS technology vice-president Harry E. Smith. In addition to news, sports, weather, education and entertainment information, participants will be able to shop, make theater reservations, and bank electronically. They may even be able to communicate electronically with other users - a kind of electronic post office.
Thus it seems probable that all this experimentation could reveal that consumers will eventually want their electronic newspaper combined with many varied two-way services.