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Videoculture 5/TV's future: will content catch up to technology?

AT a 2,000-year-old site in Baghdad a few years ago, archaeologists turned up a most unusual pot. Inside its iron shell was a copper rod, supported by pitch. The copper was corroded, as though by acid. They had discovered, it seems, an electric battery.

The ancients held in their hands all the potential for light, heat, and communication. Yet what, apparently, did they use their battery for?

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Electroplating their jewelry -- nothing more.

As America continues to navigate into the video age, will it use television -- a discovery as rich with potential as that Iraqi battery -- for the moral equivalent of electroplating its jewelry?

Or is television poised to bring tremendous benefits, constantly improving the quality and scope of Western culture?

Most observers agree that developments now in the laboratories will produce, during the next decade, major changes in the technical quality of television (see adjacent article).

At the same time, however, there is widespread concern that the new ``hardware'' may be used to deliver a kind of ``software'' that is little different from today's programming.

``The real crunch,'' says Henry Rivera, one of five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is that ``we have a dearth of software.''

``The winners,'' he speculates, ``will be the people with the software.''

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What will tomorrow's programming look like -- and what should it look like? Answers vary, depending on whether you look at commercial television or public television. Commercial television

The nature of network programming, most observers agree, is closely bound up with the financial structure of the industry. For years, commercial television was a fairly stable oligopoly. But that is rapidly changing.

``There are so many new things developing,'' says Channels magazine editor Les Brown, ``that I can't but have the feeling that the old television system is sitting on the San Andreas fault, and at some moment the ground will open, just as happened in network radio.''

Mr. Brown, who has been writing about television for more than 30 years, ticks off the ground-splitting forces: federal deregulation; the discovery that people will pay for television (as they do on cable systems); and the convergence of the ``four technologies'' of television, telephones, satellites, and computers.

``It's a very powerful medium, and it's one that can do all kinds of things to help enrich the culture,'' he says. ``But broadcasters are less and less responsible.

``All they care about is money,'' he adds. Television stations, he says, ``make 60 cents on the dollar, [so] that's the business they want to be in.''

From his spacious, plant-filled Washington office, FCC chairman Mark Fowler takes a different view. A Reagan appointee and free-market zealot, he has engineered a wholesale deregulation of the broadcast media -- which, say his critics, has heightened the irresponsibility of the broadcasters and allowed them to exploit the nation's public airwaves for their own commercial ends.

Fowler, instead, sees his role as one of untying the hands of the broadcasters -- which, he feels, is necessary if programming is to improve.

``Programming is so expensive to produce,'' he says, ``that sometimes it takes the very big players to be able to really provide good programming.''

Now, because of deregulation, ``we're seeing a terrific revolution,'' he says. ``We're seeing literally billions of new dollars of capital flowing into the television industry in all sectors -- programming, distribution, promotion.''

The result, he feels, has been a breaking up of the ``cozy buddy system'' of network monopoly.

Has programming improved as a result?

``I don't think television has reached its finest hour,'' Hollywood-based television producer Lee Rich says cautiously.

Others are more outspoken.

``I watched television last night with an eye to what I was watching,'' raged Columbia University's Fred W. Friendly in a recent interview, ``and it's unbelievable. There are more cars being blown up, more alleged sex, more of an amusement park [atmosphere] than 10 years ago -- and 10 years ago was bad.''

Rich Du Brow, television editor at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, makes the same point. ``You'd be amazed,'' he says, ``at how many stars -- and I mean major, major stars -- [have] told me that it was just terrible what had happened to prime time, that it had just become so empty-headed and impossible to watch.''

Now, however, Mr. Du Brow thinks he has spotted a change. This season, he says, ``the audience suddenly delivered a message to the networks.'' Citing three shows that have succeeded far beyond expectations -- ``The Bill Cosby Show,'' ``Highway to Heaven,'' and ``Murder, She Wrote'' -- he says the viewers have ``said basically that they wanted more upbeat, positive views of the human race.''

``The public is looking for more quality and more honesty in their programming,'' says Mr. Rich. In the future, he says, ``I think you're going to see a lot more family shows, and a lot more family-oriented shows.''

Most observers agree, however, that commercial television will continue to control the lion's share of the money. Having weathered a serious scare several years ago -- when networks were looked upon as dinosaurs, about to be rendered extinct by the growth of cable systems and independent stations -- they now appear highly promising. Why else, observers ask, would Atlanta businessman Ted Turner want to own CBS? Public television

``I don't think it would have ever occurred to anybody that a big, tall lady with a funny voice would change the cuisine in America. Or that [anyone] would want to watch cooking in prime time.''

Suzanne Weil, director of programming at the Washington-based Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), is talking, of course, about Julia Child, whose cooking shows continue to be popular PBS fare.

Her point: Success in television programming can indeed come in unpredictable and innovative ways.

PBS, many observers say, is the bright spot in the nation's programming -- and is increasingly popular among viewers. Unlike commercial television, however, it is constantly pressured by financial constraints.

Unlike government-sponsored television in most other countries, PBS is supported largely by nonfederal sources -- and it subsists on slender means. In 1983, public television funding in the United States totaled $3.09 per person -- compared with more than $25 per capita in Canada and about $18.50 in the United Kingdom (1982 figures). Plans are afoot, however, to expand revenues by increasing advertising on public television.

Despite financial considerations, however, PBS strives to pursue innovative programming.

``My guess is that if we're going to be smart, we're going to really change the way prime time looks in the future,'' says Ms. Weil, ``and direct it more into . . . magazine formats.''

The reason: the spiraling popularity of the videocassette recorder (VCR), sales of which are forecast to reach 11.5 million units this year. Ms. Weil argues that because of the wide use of VCRs for ``time-shifting'' (recording programs for later viewing), and because broadcast and cable programs are going to be increasingly in competition with rental cassettes, programming schedules should now be designed in new ways.

In the future, she says, some of PBS's major pieces -- operas, ballets, dance, and so forth -- could be broadcast at other-than-prime-time hours -- on the assumption that people who want to watch them will simply record them.

``People are going to want to be current and want to be hooked into the rest of the world,'' she says. So the prime-time hours, she feels, should be used for ``news and sports and commentary [and] things that have to do with thought -- because those are the things that people are not going to rent.''

But is PBS programming, as some critics charge, too ``elitist''?

``We got a letter [recently] from a retired fireman in Montana,'' says PBS president Bruce Christensen. ``He said, `I live on beans, Social Security, and public television -- not necessarily in that order.' ''

PBS programming, says Mr. Christensen, is ``the sort of thing you find people are hungry for. It isn't just [for] the elite in the country. Our programming may be elite, but the people who watch it certainly aren't.'' THE future holds a number of other developments, the experts say.

Videocassettes. The VCR, says Les Brown, is ``the hope for democracy'' -- since democracy flourishes ``when the consumer can get into the distribution system and actually make television.''

His argument goes back to economics. A commercial television program, he says, needs to attract an audience of 30 million people to have a real success. Only the networks have that kind of reach.

But now, with video rental and sales shops popping up daily around the nation, videocassettes can be sold like books, directly to the consumer. This way, he says, ``You need only to sell 50,000 to 100,000 cassettes to have a hit.''

The result: Cassettes, not needing to attract a mass audience, can be highly specialized -- and can be produced inexpensively by anyone who wishes.

``Rather than a fourth network,'' says Brown, ``I would [like to] see homemade television.''

Changing uses of print. ``The dividing line between electronic and print delivery is getting to be blurred all the time,'' says George Gerbner, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications. ``When the crossover is reached in terms of cost, much of what we consider print today will be delivered electronically.''

To some extent, that is already happening. Already, computers with access to data bases are bringing print into the home electronically. Experiments are already under way with newspaper delivery by means of a home-based printer. But neither teletext (a one-way system that sends ``pages'' of information along a portion of the television picture that is usually unseen) nor videotex (a two-way, interactive medium that permits home banking and shopping) has yet generated much public enthusiasm.

Will that change the way we use print? James W. Carey, dean of the School of Communication at the University of Illinois, thinks so. ``Print is going to acquire an increasingly specialized role,'' he notes, as the visual and graphic aspects of television increasingly take on information-delivery roles.

For some, the print-video connection is a glorious prospect. William T. Reed, vice-president for Educational Services at PBS, says that in 10 or 20 years ``people are going to have the option of having a continuous education -- much of it taken at home.''

``My children,'' he says, ``will be able to sit at home and have access through a computer to the world's best libraries. Colleges may not go away, although their function will shift more toward what he calls ``the rite of passage'' and away from purely educational purposes.

But William F. Fore of the National Council of Churches sees in these developments some serious challenges to learning -- especially to the book-based religion of Christianity. He worries that the television generation, lured away from print, may also be lured away from the Bible. Books, he says, bring ``the linear, analytical process that has always resulted in theology, and dogma, and the things which tend to bring the corrective into any church group.''

``Without that,'' he warns, ``you run all the risks and dangers . . . of being unfaithful to the true gospel.''

Media education. Also growing is the movement toward what Dr. Fore calls ``television awareness training'' -- efforts at home and in school to teach children to become more intelligent viewers of television.

``People ought to be more mindful about the number of hours that children are spending in front of the television,'' says the FCC's Henry Rivera. Because ``kids like it,'' he says, it is especially important to ``instill an appropriate attitude about television.''

According to Harvard University's Helen Featherstone, recent research has shown that parents can have an effect in several ways: by modifying their own viewing habits, by monitoring their children's viewing, by teaching children to make intelligent choices, by watching with their children, and by telling their local station managers what they do and do not like.

In the future, schools will have wider access to video recordings of increasingly sophisticated educational programs. Teachers can also make use of broadcast television: a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, Prime Time School Television, produces teacher guides for forthcoming programs. WHERE is it all taking us?

If there is one thread common to the thinking of most observers interviewed for this series, it is this: that the nation must pay much more attention to television's impact on its social, cultural, and political institutions.

Some find that impact profoundly damaging -- the kind of ``unbearable disturbance of the general peace'' that E. B. White, in 1938, foresaw as one possible outcome of television.

``If you look back,'' says Channels editor Les Brown, ``every 10 years television has been different.'' In this decade, he says, ``we're redefining the American dream. It used to be the suburban home with the picket fence. Now it's everything you can get -- it's greed gone wild.''

Like many others, he links the popular fascination with materialism to television's commercialism.

But some see in television what White called ``a saving radiance in the sky'' -- a future of almost unlimited promise. ``There's enormous potential there,'' says Professor Friendly. ``There's the potential for Murrow to do a McCarthy,'' he adds, referring to Edward R. Murrow's 1954 CBS-TV expos'e of the excesses of Joseph R. McCarthy's anticommunist witch hunting. ``There's the potential for a `Playhouse 90' [the most ambitious of the many live dramatic-anthology series aired in the '50s and early '60s]. There's the potential for the Watergate hearings. There's the potential for a Bach cantata coast to coast and in stereo.''

Which view is more nearly right? What is the impact of television?

``Most of us,'' says ABC anchor man Peter Jennings candidly, ``are quite confused about it. I work in TV,'' he adds, ``but I try not to let my kids watch it.''

Whichever view one takes -- and many observers take both -- the fact remains that, as Professor Gerbner says, ``this is the prehistory of television.

``Television programming,'' he continues, ``is going to have to be one of the key issues debated in Congress, one of the key issues debated in our schools and school boards.''

``We simply have to recognize,'' he concludes, ``that we are not going to be a self-governing community without giving serious public attention to the electronic sector.''

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