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Multichannels--Media, Without the Mass : Cable TV: With 500-channel systems, micromarketing threatens to take away our shared experiences.

September 26, 1993|MATT JAMES | Matt James is communications director of the Kaiser Family Foundation, Menlo Park.

When I was a kid, the show was "All in the Family." Before that, there were "Laugh-In" and "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." Predating these was "The Ed Sullivan Show," and in later years, it would be "Roots."

These shows all sparked national debates on important issues that crossed generational, cultural, educational or class lines. When Archie Bunker's idol, a former pro-football player, revealed he was gay (tame stuff today, but a real shocker in the early '70s), it not only produced a memorable television episode, but also was written about in the newspapers, widely discussed on talk shows and hashed over at dinner tables across the country.

Likewise, Alex Haley's "Roots" helped educate white America and gave a powerful voice to the frustration of a black America that was previously unheard. Growing up in a white-bread suburb of Detroit, my peers and I were not accustomed to lengthy discussions about slavery and its consequences, but those discussions took place after "Roots."

For the past 40 years, television has helped Americans share experiences. Many shows have dealt with controversial moral and ethical issues facing society, while many more were simple entertainment, from sporting events to sitcoms. In the simpler days of three networks, PBS and a smattering of independent stations, television served as a national sounding board for ideas, news and information.

The coming of cable television began to change this. For the first time, television consumers could control what they saw and, coupled with VCRs and pay-per-view, when they saw it.

Now comes the much-heralded information superhighway, which in the near future will provide us with 500-channel cable systems and countless ways for consumers to interact with one another as well as with services, government and schools. The opportunities are restricted only by the imagination of programmers. A brave new world, right?

Hardly. There are major questions that surround this new technology, from how much consumers will have to pay to whether equal access will be provided to less-powerful groups. Still, most industry experts expect that in the near future, television viewing will operate like this: You will be provided with menus of viewing options (such as sports, comedy, drama, music) and within these groups will be subgroups (the basketball channel, the rap-music channel, the Muslim channel) for you to choose from. The idea is more diversity and empowering viewers.

But what of shared experiences? Will there still be a place for a ground-breaking show or revealing documentary for the general populace? It hardly seems likely. Instead, it appears programmers will continue the current trend of designing programs for narrow special interests, and, with the problems advertisers will face with this system (who is going to watch an ad when they scan 500 channels?) we may end up with a system where viewers are charged for what they watch, meaning they will only watch what directly appeals to them. Thus, the cross-pollination of cultures, ideas and opinions may actually be eroded by a megachannel system. The system that many hope will ensure diversity may instead ensure that individual groups will tune out others' opinions and experiences.

Ten years from now, there may be 20 channels available to "born-again" Christians, five channels for the gay community and 10 geared toward the black community, just in Los Angeles. What are the odds, then, that "born-again" Christians will hear voices from the black or gay communities? What are the odds that the black or gay communities will engage in constructive discussions of family values with "born-again" Christians? If dialogue and exchanging apoints of view are the keys to constructive debate, how does that debate begin without debaters?

This is not to defend the past practices of networks. Far from it. Shows like "Sanford & Son" presented white America with a glimpse of the black community that was untroubling and unrealistic. But then there was "Cosby," "Harvest of Shame" and other shows that helped weave minority voices and experiences into our national fabric. By contrast, a recent, provocative episode of "NOVA" that focused on the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, whichmay have been seen by a wide audience when there were three major networks and PBS, was seen by only two people that I know, a black doctor and a black journalist.

Our multichannel future is inevitable, and the changes it will bring to our lives will be profound. But as we head down this new information superhighway, we need to realize that television is a unique tool in this modern age in being able to educate the masses about each other. Let's hope the information superhighway will ultimately teach us more about each other and not further isolate us from people who aren't like us.

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