New Kinds of Television

A former newspaperman, magazine writer, editor, and teacher, VANCE PACKARD is the author of a number of controversial books, chief among them THE HIDDEN PERSUADERS, THE STATUS SEEKERS, and THE WASTE MAKERS. In the article which follows he discusses developments in the transmission of television which may lead to a dramatic improvement in the programs offered.
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Kahn and others have not overlooked the boxoffice possibilities of cable TV, and this possible extension of C.A.T. is what makes the commercial broadcasters most uneasy. In his role as an entrepreneur, Kahn has shown heavyweightchampionship fights, via a closed circuit of cable TV, on huge screens in theaters and stadiums; and on three occasions he arranged for simultaneous hookups with C.A.T. systems serving home set owners. In these instances, the home viewers were put on their honor to send in the price of admission, but there are now devices to record charges automatically for special events seen at home. A firm in Newark, in fact, has developed equipment to convert C.A.T. systems to a charge basis at a perinstallation cost of only ten dollars. A great many people are convinced that it is through a cable network of hundreds of thousands of C.A.T. and masterantennalinked homes that a third kind of television, charge TV, will come.

CHARGE TV

In the beginning, charge TV, also known as tollvision, payTV, tollTV, feevee, or subscription TV, was conceived in terms of putting coins in a slot in order to get a desired program on your television screen, and so the phrase "payTV" was then most precisely descriptive. Today most of the newer subscription systems operate on an electronically recorded chargeit basis, so that "charge TV" seems the most apt label.

In earlier days some form of charge TV was seen as the bright promise for television. It would permit the really discriminating set owners to enjoy the finest in ballet, opera, concerts, and top Broadway plays, as well as sports and firstrun movies, by paying for the privilege, and the enjoyment would not be spoiled by commercial intrusions. As charge TV comes closer to reality, it is clear that neither quality programming nor freedom from commercials can be taken for granted. Hardboiled showbiz types with an eye on the box office rather than idealists, now appear more likely to make the first big breakthrough.

Networks, advertising agencies, and movie exhibitors, with their allies in Congress, have made mighty efforts to strangle any variation of charge TV in its crib, but the F.C.C., after years of delay, authorized two tests and probably will authorize more. The first test, in Hartford, Connecticut (by ZenithKKO General's Phonevision), is an over-theair system without cables. A scrambled picture is broadcast, and subscribers have a decoder that unscrambles the picture and automatically records the tuning. The subscriber is billed monthly. Phonevision has more than 2500 subscribers and reportedly would have many more, except for technical difficulties that at one time included getting subscribers accustomed to using the decoder. To break even, the system will need about 25,000 subscribers.

Phonevision has produced such cultural highlights as the Bolshoi Ballet and prima donna Joan Sutherland accompanied by the London Symphony, but the mainstay of its programming has been current movies still showing in Hartford's neighborhood theaters. One reason that movies are favored is that they can be obtained relatively inexpensively. Most of the experimenters in charge TV are haunted by the fact that they are running a marginal operation. In starting with only a few thousand subscribers, the operators cannot afford to bring Broadway plays or other great cultural events without incurring a great loss. Only when a chargeTV broadcaster signs up more than 100,000 subscribers can the true potential of charge TV for quality programming receive a fair test. Although Phonevision is committed to the overtheair approach, one of its prime backers, RKO General, has made a large hedge it owns nineteen QA.T. systems with cables running into 29,000 homes.

The promoters of the second authorized test of charge TV, Teleglobe, in Denver, are relatively late starters, but they have a bold concept that cuts through most of the costs and complexities hampering the Hartford experiment. The Teleglobe people brashly ask, in effect, “Why worry about scrambling the picture or sending it over expensive coaxial cable? Let's broadcast the picture freely for everyone to see but without sound. The sound can be separated and sent into subscribers' homes over inexpensive telephone wire. The subscriber wishing to receive sound simply pushes a button.” Again, the tuning is recorded at a central office, and the subscriber is billed monthly. Teleglobe contends that its costs are only a fraction of those of other systems and it can start breaking even with 10,000 subscribers.

Its officials believe that broadcasting the video portion freely for all to see will, in fact, serve as a teaser in winning new subscribers. Only prizefights, they believe, offer any problem, since fights can be viewed satisfactorily without sound. A voice accompanying the typical silent program being shown will say, “If you would like to receive the sound accompanying this program, just call ---.” Teleglobe plans to run only one show daily, in prime evening hours. It is simply leasing a two-hour time segment from a regular commercialTV station. It hopes to offer firstrun movies, good plays, and outstanding nightclub acts. In the wings it has a chargeeducationalTV University of the Air program offering college courses for credit.

Another impressive entrant in the chargeTV race is the Home Entertainment Company of America in Los Angeles, which hopes to launch a cabled chargeTV system in Santa Monica, bordering Los Angeles, next year, and if all goes well, extend it into Los Angeles. It will bill monthly instead of using a cola box, and it plans to have the General Telephone Company lay out a vast coaxial cable system blanketing Santa Monica, so that when a homeowner asks to subscribe, wiring costs will be nominal.

Finally, there is the impresario, Irving Kahn of TelePrompTer, with his 40,000 C.A.T. subscribers already in being and with his dream of electronic merchandising, which can work on either cable or charge TV. To convert a C.A.T. home to charge TV for special events, all he needs to do is to install a lowvoltage line beside his existing coaxial system and put his Key TV control box in the home. He has already demonstrated in his closed-circuit showing of heavyweightchampionship fights that he can outbid Gillette, the richest of commercial TV's sports sponsors, for really big events. Kahn is thinking of charge TV only in terms of spectacles. He would offer just one every two weeks, or twentysix spectacles a year. These would include a movie of the month brandnew, of course; four or five of Broadway's very hottest plays, which he would run six months after their Broadway openings, so that their fame would already have spread to Kokomo; and perhaps a half dozen championship sports events.

Many would agree with television editor Richard Doan that most people are willing to pay only if the programs offered on charge TV are "dramatically better" than those available on a noncharge basis. It may develop that charge TV will become as ratingprone as commercial TV. There is an inherent pressure to seek shows that will attract the most listeners. ChargeTV operators have shown considerable interest in the fact that in one survey in Hartford three programs attracted these varying percentages of the system's total membership: PattersonListon fight, 85 percent; <i>What Ever Happened to Baby, Jane?</i> (movie), 66 percent; Bolshoi Ballet, 29 percent.

There is, unhappily, still no assurance that charge TV will not succumb to the temptation to accept a moderate number of commercials as one way to gain revenue and promise reduced costs to the subscriber. It is certain that if charge TV clearly establishes itself, advertisers will try to tap the precisely identifiable new markets it can offer. Teleglobe in Denver has emphatically vowed that it will never carry commercials. At least two other systems are following a waitand-see policy.

The fact that charge TV has started relatively slowly may be no indication of its explosive potentialities. Kahn recalls that in the beginning of commercial TV the number of set owners remained in the five thousand to ten thousand range for several years and then spurted to seven million in about five years. And soon there may be seventy million set owners. Let us assume that a chargeTV operator puts together a system with a mere three million subscribers. Such an audience on commercial TV would be far too small to interest either a national sponsor or network during prune time. But a chargeTV operator with three million subscribers would know from experience that he could attract a large enough primetime audience to make good money, even on Ibsen or Pablo Casals. Whether he would bother with programs for a minority audience is less clear.

CULTURAL TV

The nighttime twin of educational TV, cultural TV, is often lumped erroneously under the unattractive "educational" label simply because its nonprofit stations carry instructions by day and because about 60 percent of the stations in this category are licensed by universities or schools. But the remaining 40 percent are independent nonprofit cultural organizations, licensed by their communities and supported by the public and by philanthropic organizations. Both these and the 60 percent licensed by educational institutions carry a general culturally rich schedule after school hours, but it is the communitylicensed stations that are generally doing the finest job in seeking to enrich as well as entertain.

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