TV guru looks into the future

Television will go through a big revolution, and when digital television comes, there will be many different possibilities.

An expert in satellite television, he has helped to launch digital video joint ventures for markets in Eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Asia Pacific region.

His experience in theatre, television, films, advertising, journalism and pay television enabled him to advise Governments and ministries on international strategy. After living in Paris for three decades, he has come to India and settled down in Chennai.

Quite at ease with people who speak English, French, Spanish and German, he takes time off from work to enjoy his favourite hobbies, which include amateur theatre, book and script writing, wind surfing and therapeutic massage.

On a brief visit to Coimbatore, the media veteran and freelance consultant, Jim Hodgetts, speaks to A.A. Michael Raj on the rich potential for communication, offered by satellite television.

WHAT WE see on television today is only the thin edge of the wedge. There is a lot more to come. "Television will go through a big revolution, and when digital television comes, there will be many different possibilities," says Tim, and adds, "In India, there is a very well-developed cable TV market, with 38 to 40 million cable homes".

There could be a shift from programmes financed through advertising, to programmes funded through pay television, which allowed "conditional access" to viewers. A decoder box fitted to the television set would deliver 200 or more pay channels.

This would totally change the face of communication, for viewers would have a wide choice. "However, that choice will be relative, not total, and I suspect there will be several packages of programmes," he says.

It was difficult to say exactly how everything would take shape, but there was likely to be a "basic system" financed through advertising, accompanied by several "pay packages" to suit various interests.

How would this affect the viewer who sits in front of the television at home? "No longer will the cable operator have the sole facility to choose what viewers will see. With direct-to-home television, you can spend exactly what you want and authorise or de-authorise what you want to see."

Owing to the flexible nature of direct-to-home (DTH) television, the packages could be a lot more varied. For example, there could be exclusive packages for die-hard film fans and inveterate sports enthusiasts. Regulations would ensure that the system remained profitable for those who operated it.

In India, where telecasts went into a large number of homes, there was great potential for digital television to provide a host of interesting programmes on subjects such as education, life in the rural areas, farming activities, weather conditions and monsoon behaviour.

An exciting technology that was already a reality in advanced countries was the pay per view (PPV) system, which allowed the viewer to look at a menu on the screen and choose a particular movie, teleplay, feature or documentary. This programme could be viewed immediately, or at some future date and time.

This was like a video shop that offered a large number of titles, any one of which could be taken on rent and viewed at the time and place of the customer's choice. Payment would be required only for the programmes actually viewed.

This gave both choice and flexibility to the viewer, but commercial success would depend on the popularity of the technology.

What about the future of digital communication? Tim had a ready answer to that question. "Television and the computer are getting closer together. It is what we have begun to call `convergence'. There are many possibilities... the telephone on the net... the video phone on the internet.... It will be the TV, the internet and the cell phone which might all go together."

However, just because a particular technology was available, did not mean that it would be widely adopted, or even that it would become a profitable venture. "Will the market be able to bear it? Many things are possible, but not all of them will get off to a good start, because it all comes down to money," he explains.

Dedicated satellites could do much to popularise education. Technically, it would become possible to study in an open university, follow course instructions on the television set, and write examinations over the internet.

Tim says he does not like the word "censorship" at all. "In every country in the West, they have a body which looks at all the programmes that are telecast every day. They keep watching all the time and make recordings." A governing body kept tabs on what the public was watching, and there was constant dialogue with the producers of the shows.

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