Friday, May 9, 2008

Television of Tomorrow (1974)


Bob MacKenzie wrote a relatively balanced and thoughtful piece about the future of television in the February 3, 1974 Oakland Tribune titled, "A 'Tomorrow' Look At World Of TV." Even articles about television were shaped by the energy fears of the 1970s.

"It now seems possible that we won't keep getting richer," MacKenzie writes. "The energy to run those room-size television screens and 3-D telecasts may have to be used for something more mundane.... like heating the joint or getting the old man to work and back."

Later in the article, MacKenzie explains what made movie theaters unique in an era before HBO and VHS tapes, "At present the movie theaters are offering patrons what they can't get on their home screens - bloody violence, nudity, sex, naughty words. But even those never-failing attractions will be available on television in the future...."

The piece in its entirety appears below.
Malcolm Muggeridge, the ancient, acidic book critic writing in Esquire, likes to refer to "future historians . . . if there are any."

We must now consider the case of future television watchers, if there are any.

What will they watch, and on what?

Every era rewrites the future; visionaries of the 1960s told us about all the fantastic electronic gear that would doubtless bring the world into the living rooms of future Americans - not only in sounds and pictures, but in odors too; specials about pollution would come complete with stink. The images would likely be three-dimensional and life size. Some of the more fervent prognosticators even looked forward to feelevision.

Video screens, it was said with what seemed optimism at the time, would cover entire walls in our homes. Channels would be unlimited; the viewer would be able to tune in on a Russian news program or a course in Latvian cooking at the touch of a button, or rather, a wave of the hand over a sensory node.

Banking and shopping would be done at home through two-way television communications. Voting would be done directly through the video system. Local town meetings would be conducted through television, with the participants all sitting home.

Three-dimensional television, technically feasible through ionization of alpha particles in the air that fills the living room, would bring life-size actors walking around in the room. Viewers would be able to enter into the drama, play roles, with computerized dialogue responding to the home player's improvised lines.

It all sounded wonderful. Or did it?

All those dreams of endless fun and self-improvement through the magic of super-television depended in part of the reigning ideology of the time which was: everything is always going to keep getting bigger and better.

Suddenly the doctrine of eternal abundance as a basic American right is seen as not so certain any more. We are running out of things. And the inevitability of progress can't be taken quite so readily for granted.

It now seems possible that we won't keep getting richer. The energy to run those room-size television screens and 3-D telecasts may have to be used for something more mundane.... like heating the joint or getting the old man to work and back.

The supersize television screens postulated a complete changeover in television technology; in other words, the scrapping of every piece of television equipment now in use - every home set, every camera and videotape machine. For, to increase the size of the screen considerably, we would have to increase the numbers of lines of transmission. That means new machines.

This could happen in 100 years. Almost anything could. But it probably won't happen for a long while, so finish paying off that color set.

Does the energy crunch and all its attendant melancholy side-effects mean that television technology isn't going anywhere?

Not at all. In the near future we'll be receiving new messages new waves on new equipment - not in life-size tri-dimensional smellovision, but in conventional television with improvements.

Like miniaturization, for instance. This branch of the electronic sciences has boomed in the past few decades. The tiny transistors which replaced the cumbersome vacuum tubes have themselves been replaced by even tinier, miraculously encoded bits of metal called MOS chips. One chip the size of a nailhead replaces hundreds of transistors. Not only are they littler, they're cheaper.

What does this mean for you and me? How about a perfectly flat television set that can be hung on the wall like a picture? Perfectly feasible in the near future. And the wrist television set, a la Dick Tracy, is now a practicable machine. Within a decade or so, you may be carrying a tiny walkie-talkie-like device in your shirt pocket. We may all be in instant audial and visual touch with one another.

Once the technology of miniature television receivers is worked out, they will be inexpensive to construct. And they will use less energy than present set, the pocket TV set will be as handy as a pocket calculator - and probably less expensive, since everyone will have one.

Every technological advance has its darker side, of course. If everyone is immediately reachable by two-way television, your boss will always be able to find you - not to mention your wife and your friendly local loan company.

Cassette TV is really on the way, too. A home library of cassettes will be a normal middle-class acquisition long before the Tribune Tower weathers its second centennial. But don't expect home cassettes to arrive immediately, or to be inexpensive when they do arrive. It will be a long time before cassettes reach the mass-distribution economics of the music recording industry. even when it does, a taped television program will cost at least twice what you will pay for an LP music tape.

Since, as mentioned before, it's just possible we won't all be richer then, how will the average family buy TV cassettes of the movies, instruction courses, plays, etc, that will be offered?

Probably by renting cassettes, or borrowing them from public libraries. Cassette TV, when it arrives, will bring the convenience of books and magazines: the viewer will watch a program of his choice, at a time of his choosing.

Full-scale home cassette television should arrive within 10 years, provided we do not develop air shortage in the meantime, and provided the Japanese continue to improve in what used to be called American knowhow.

What about television programs? How will they change?

100 years in the future is very far ahead to peer; if there are still television programs then, they will be about things of interest to a people who will be as unlike us as we are unlike the steerage passengers in the Mayflower. Perhaps their programs will be instructional "How to Eat Plastic," or "I Breathed in Los Angeles and Lived."

Who knows? We will leave these matters to future television columnists, if any. But we can look into the immediate future and make some educated guesses about programs in 10 and 20 years, based on the ways programs are changing now.

The most immediately obvious evolution in television is toward bigger and better movies for television. In a very few years, features produced for TV have moved from skimpily budgeted trash (Z-pictures, one critic called them) to a healthy form that often supplies good entertainment and occasionally brings memorable drama.

TV-movies still supply plenty of trash (perhaps trash is a needed commodity; the world has never been without it), and budgets are still small. But changes are coming, and very soon.

Small budgets and high aspirations have managed fine television movies like "Brian's Song"; but in the future producers may not be so confined in the money department. Ways are being found to produce full-scale motion pictures for television.

"The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" might be considered the first of anew generation of television movies. Produced with scope and size, this fine picture was budgeted at $900,000 - still a low expense for a theatrical movie, but double or triple the cost of most TV-movies. A network contract for four showings, plus planned revenue for European theatrical bookings, will pay for the film and bring a profit.

Another venture, on NBC, is called International World Premiere. By this plan, new movies for television will be seen on NBC the same night they open in theaters in other countries - so the producers, with revenues from both TV and theaters, can hire major stars and deliver full-scale production.

Eventually, as other ways of financing television films are found, movies for television will become the equal of theatrical movies - in quality if not in sensationalism.

At present the movie theaters are offering patrons what they can't get on their home screens - bloody violence, nudity, sex, naughty words.

But even those never-failing attractions will be available on television in the future - if not in the regularly scheduled programs, then in cassette television. And, needless to say, Cassettes will bring the era of readily-available TV pornography. Whether that constitutes an advance for the civilized world the reader must decide for himself.

And as long as people persist in being human, television drama will concern the same subjects that drama has always treated: the timeless issues of love and faith and valor and ambition and loss, the yearnings of the heart and itchings of the glands.

People will always be interested in these things. And television, or whatever replaces it in the incalculable, unpredictable future, will still be staging the stories about the good guys versus the bad guys.

With any luck, the good guys will still be winning.

See also:
Home Entertainment of the Future (1981)
Living Room of the Future (1979)
Movie Trends of the 21st Century (1982)
How Experts Think We'll Live in 2000 A.D. (1950)
Movie Theater of the Future (1930)
Learning in 1999 A.D. (1967)
Tomorrow's TV-Phone (1956)
Closer Than We Think: Headphone TV (1960)

8 comments:

Matthew said...

Wow, a lot of correct predictions in there--especially everything in it about VCRs, which was essentially 100% accurate. Of course, the article was predicting things that weren't very far off. The pessimistic, fearful angle is striking--this is a style that's come around again to some degree.

Anonymous said...

What a vivid imagination. I'd love to read that whole article but I think instead I'll watch a Blu-Ray disk in HD on my 120" front projection system that covers the entire wall of my living room. I sure hope that crazy stuff he's talking about comes true in less than another 65 years!!

. said...

I'm a starving college student and even I managed to buy a decent XGA projector in time for Smash Bros Brawl to come out. This guy was unreasonably pessimistic, which is unusual for a futurist.

Eric said...

Excellent republication of a classic article. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

It's very illuminating, although almost inevitably reveals clues about its date of creation. For instance, quoting Malcolm (the believer in God, not homo sapiens) Muggeridge. Plus the odd optimism about "May the good guys always win." Have the good guys ever always won?

Keep it up! Consider me a fan.

Have you seen the 1950s promotional cartoon for "America's Highways of the Future?" A friend showed me it on Utube a few months back, and it was just perfect. Perhaps you have already written about it; if not, check it out. You'll love it!

Matthew said...

Near the beginning, in the section about failed predictions, there is that weird aside about 3D TV operating via alpha particles, which is kind of a head-scratcher. Did anyone ever unironically claim that? It doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

In the same section, he describes e-commerce as one of the great pipe dreams.

Matthew said...

...Also, to expand on that, one of the interesting things about this article is that the article itself has a conscious sense of paleo-futurism.

I wonder when that really starts showing up, when people start spending a lot of time comparing their own era (unfavorably?) to vanished future visions. The Disney futurist stuff from the Fifties and Sixties usually does spend some time on Jules Verne, but it's mostly to state how much cooler the real future will be. Maybe Seventies dystopianism turned that around.

Bonnach said...

It kind of reflects the negativism of the time, the mid 70s. There were lots of bad things going on at the time, Nixon, Vietnam, energy crisis, older hippies. Stuff like that. I thought his vision of the future of TV was very good. A little negativism in your future-vision is a good thing

beagledad said...

The timing of this article coincides with the beginnings of SF writing that paid attention to the way people actually behave in real life, and it's one of the few pieces of paelofuturism that does the same. What I want to know is, did the author have any suggestions for good stock picks for the latter half of 2008?