Futurecast 

24 May 2004 tbs.pm/1993

Andrew Bowden on what the future promised and what we got

In 1999 Channel 4 ran a strand of dramas under the name ‘Futurecast’. Each dealt with a different theme of life in the future. Naturally one dealt with the future of television.

The vision was of television programmes selected to meet your own personal taste and downloaded to your personal recorder via the internet.

Once downloaded, and the viewer was ready to watch, they were presented by a computer-generated in-vision announcer, who led the audience through the shows available.

There was nothing particularly far fetched about the vision, but then the programme was only based about 15 years in the future.

Sky EPG

Not an in-vision announcer, but straight to your TV

Internet broadcasting was one of the big ideas bandied around during the dot-com boom in the late 1990s. The pundits claimed transmitters would become meaningless as radio stations and TV programmes would be streamed down the phone line straight to your computer.

Radio online

Radio stations rushed online. Traditional broadcasters, with a live webcast of their output, were joined by new internet based stations. Where once listening choice was restricted due to geography, suddenly the listener had the ability to tune into stations across the globe.

Even user-generated radio stations like (the now defunct) Radio SonicNet joined the party, offering the user the chance to enter in their music tastes and have a computer-generated playlist based on their choices. Tell it that you wanted smooth jazz, classical and nu-metal and it would be yours.

Radio has always been cheaper to broadcast than its vision-based partner and, not surprisingly, there are few TV stations broadcasting on the internet.

With one of the main problems being the cost of broadcast rights, the few stations that do broadcast online are those who create their own output like rolling news networks.

While online stations are few and far between, programmes have appeared online, from Newsnight to Rex the Runt. Websites like Atom Films and ClassicComedy.net have made sketches to full shows, available at the click of a mouse button.

There has even been an internet sitcom pilot, in the form of The Junkies, made on a shoestring budget of £3,500 and starring (amongst others) Sally Phillips. Yet it comes at a price. Pictures are usually small and jerky and sound nowhere near Nicam stereo quality.

Broadband television

Not that it necessarily needs to be the case. Unbeknownst to most of the country, a company in London has been using broadband connections via traditional phone lines to pipe television into homes.

Using a set-top box, Home Choice has been providing on-demand programming in a number of genres, from comedy to films – even Premiership Football. As the viewer just selects what they want to see, they can view it whenever they want. Programmes are just ‘rented’ for a 24-hour period.

Home Choice’s website boldly invites customers to “join the revolution”, but so far its success has been limited, with many subscribers taking up the service purely to get fast internet access. The high costs of broadband internet services, and the limited proportion of the population it can reach, has stifled the expansion of services nationwide, but Home Choice’s biggest problem is programming.

With no access to the content of popular pay TV channels like Sky One and E4, most viewers wanting Pay TV will be heading straight for the cable companies or BSkyB. If you’re going to persuade people to pay for a TV service, it has to be something they want to watch, and most people want more from their money than just repeats from BBC One and Channel 4.

There are actually two companies who could technically make the most of internet broadcasting: NTL and Telewest. With both having set top boxes connected to fast internet connections in homes across the country, the two companies could be the main players in on-demand television in the future.

Like Sky, both companies currently offer films and special events, repeated across different channels, starting at regular intervals, but neither currently offer true on-request services. With both companies having financial problems, the investment required to introduce such a service could be a long way off and, again, it would be a service only available to a subset of the population.

Even if the two companies do go down that route, without the programming there would be little incentive for viewers to pay up and tune in.

Personal programming

Whilst on-demand internet broadcasting may be some way away, the other prediction from the Futurecast drama is already here – automatic recording of programmes based on your personal preferences. Owners of personal video recorders (PVRs) like TiVo don’t quite have realistic-looking computer-generated announcers to welcome them to their programmes.

However they can have programmes selected and recorded to hard disk for them, with the box predicting what kind of programmes the viewer wishes to watch. TiVo, for example, learns what the viewer likes, and records it appropriately. The viewer can then choose what programme they want to watch, from what the box has recorded.

Whilst personalised recording is here already, the platform they are recorded from isn’t revolutionary. PVRs work with the main TV platforms – cable, satellite and terrestrial.

There is even the ability to record pay-per-view films and events on digital satellite. A Sky+ box will record the programme, but the viewer will only be charged for it if they start to watch it.

Despite those who own them extolling their benefits, personal video recorders so far haven’t made a huge impact, partly down to cost, and partly due to people not seeing the point.

However if the price comes down enough, they could change the way we view television forever. On the other hand, in twenty years time, we could all be watching television in exactly the same way as we do now.

There are some big changes that could take place in the way we watch. They’re achievable now, but whether they take off depends ultimately on two things: cost and an incentive to use them.

Get it right and yet another broadcasting revolution will be just around the corner. Get it wrong, and nothing will change.

Broadcasting has changed a great deal in its short life, and one thing is for sure: as technology advances, even the two examples cited here could be rendered obsolete before they’ve even taken off.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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