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Five Hundred TV Channels? Try Five Billion!

By Jim Bray

When I was young (and dinosaurs roamed the earth), it was said there'd be 500 channels of television one day. It would be Video Heaven, a cornucopia of content that would keep citizens content.

I haven't counted the number of channels my satellite provider provides, but there are hundreds. Unfortunately, for the most part it's the same travel shows, nature series, car programs and whatever else you get on one channel, rebroadcast ad nauseam over an abundance of different channels and to different time zones. Oh yeah, and The Simpsons and Seinfeld again and again.

Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with that – and it isn't the satellite provider's fault. It's the broadcasters'.

Is there not enough original content out there to offer viewers more choices, or are broadcasters not willing to spend money and/or take chances?

I'd bet it's not a lack of potential content. Only a small percentage of programs producers pitch ever see the light of day – and many of them are cancelled before they even have a chance to find an audience. And broadcasters will undoubtedly continue "playing it safe" until forced by competition to change.  

Fortunately, that competition is already cropping up thanks to the Internet. Personal Computer technology has brought the production studio to the desktop, and this is unleashing the creative muse in anyone who aspires to being the next Orson Welles. Sites such as, where people can post their work for all to view, are becoming "Must See TV" stops for many. For the budding producer, it's the virtual equivalent of running something up the flagpole and seeing who salutes.

And many people are saluting – and are spreading the word to their friends and colleagues. Just in the past few months I've been emailed links to such content as commercials (many of which are foreign language) that are often more entertaining than many TV shows. I've followed links to productions or compilations by people who think they have something to say and sometimes they do. Some of this stuff is really good!

The Web gives less "mainstream" product a chance to find its audience, stuff that may only be of interest to a limited demographic that may be ignored by an increasingly moribund mainstream media. It's also a good way to get timely footage of breaking news events, from "ordinary people" on the scene the video cameras, often with more context and/or less slant that you'll get from Perky Katie and her ilk.

And, perhaps best of all for consumers, you aren't bound to a broadcaster's schedule: the stuff's there when you want it.

TV networks can see the online world creeping up on them in the same way Internet-based news and information sites have begun pummeling traditional print media outlets. ABC, for example, has offered free streaming of shows such as Desperate Housewives and Lost, complete with embedded (and, unfortunately, unskippable) commercials, in an attempt to reach an audience that's increasingly abandoning broadcasters for Browsers.

Garbage in, garbage out….

This is a smart move, though streaming a lousy show isn't going to make it any better. That isn't meant as a slap at either of those ABC offerings: I haven't seen them. But quality counts, and as the old saying goes, "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage." This applies to the movie or TV screen and the Browser window as well, and of the thousands of productions proliferating on websites, I'd bet that links to only the most interesting will find their way around the world.

It's a classic illustration of Theodore Sturgeon's Law: "90 per cent of everything is crud."

Which may explain why the first draft of this piece was 50,000 words….

Right now we're only seeing the beginning of what I predict will be an eventual tsunami of video production moving online. Even smaller web sites like my have started dabbling with video content. Using only my digital still camera, for example, I shot a video demonstrating the operation of a Volvo convertible's retractable hardtop. It'll never win an Emmy, but it adds a new dimension to an otherwise text-based review.

Ten years ago you'd have only found video like that on a broadcast TV show. Now it's everywhere.

The technical quality of online broadcasts is the weak link, however: the pipeline isn't big enough to transmit all the broadcast quality video (let alone high definition) that'll help make Internet broadcasting ubiquitous. But content providers – satellite, cable, telephone – are scrambling to deal with these challenges and should be successful over time.

Then, with our new generations of Internet-compliant big screen TV's, we'll be able to pick and choose from that five billion channel universe.

At which time we'll undoubtedly seek out that favorite Simpsons episode they never seem to show on the networks.

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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