Take A Trip into the Future on the Electronic Superhighway

A new world of video entertainment and interactive services will be available — sooner than many think

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The prospect of multiplying today's TV listings has launched a furious debate over what a fragmented and TV-anesthetized society will do with 100 — or 500 — offerings. Will scores of narrowcast channels devoted to arcana like needlepointing or fly fishing fracture whatever remains of a mass $ culture, leaving Americans with little common ground for discourse? Or will the slots be given over to endless rebroadcasts of a handful of hit movies and TV shows — raising the nightmarish specter of the Terminator saying "I'll be back" every few minutes, day in and day out?

But to focus on the number of channels in a TV system is to miss the point of where the revolution is headed. When the information highway comes to town, channels and nightly schedules will begin to fade away and could eventually disappear. In this postchannel world, more and more of what one wants to see will be delivered on demand by a local supplier (either a cable system, a phone company or a joint venture) from giant computer disks called file servers. These might store hundreds of movies, the current week's broadcast programming and all manner of video publications, catalogs, data files and interactive entertainment. Remote facilities, located in Burbank, California, or Hollywood or Atlanta or anywhere, will hold additional offerings from HBO and Showtime, as well as archived hits from the past: I Love Lucy, Star Trek, The Brady Bunch. Click an item on the menu, and it will appear instantly on the screen.

This is the type of system that most of the top cable companies — including TCI, Time Warner, Viacom and Cablevision — hope to build within the next year or two, at least on a demonstration basis. Many of the regional Bell operating companies (the so-called Baby Bells) are trying to create their own interactive networks, either by themselves or in partnership with cable companies. Bell Atlantic is scheduled to begin offering video on demand to 300 homes in northern Virginia this summer. U.S. West has announced plans to deploy enough fiber-optic lines and coaxial cable (the pencil-thick wire used by cable systems) across 14 states to deliver "video dial tones" to 13 million households starting next year.

Once the storage and switching systems are in place, all sorts of interactive services become possible. The same switches used to send a TV show to your home can also be used to send a video from your home to any other — paving the way for video phones that will be as ubiquitous and easy to use as TV. The same system will allow anybody with a camcorder to distribute videos to the world — a development that could open the floodgates to a wave of new filmmaking talent or a deluge of truly awful home movies.

Today's home shopping networks could blossom into video malls stocked with & the latest from Victoria's Secret, Toys "R" Us and the Gap. Armchair shoppers could browse with their remote controls, see video displays of the products that interest them, and charge these items on their credit cards with the press of a button — a convenience that will empower some folks and surely bankrupt others.

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