Predictions (Part 1)

In which The Author dips into a book of science essays

In 1964, Arthur C. Clarke (his knighthood was still some three decades away) wrote an essay in which he outlined his personal vision of future technology. Mr Clarke had first proposed a communication network of geostationary satellites in a paper written while he was still in his twenties. In this extract from his 1964 essay Man and Space, reprinted in The View from Serendip, he cast a jaundiced eye over the possible development of his brainchild:
When these [communication satellites] are perfected, the average man will have a choice of not less than ten thousand TV channels. Studies made by a leading Madison Avenue agency have already revealed some most interesting facts about the programmes they are likely to carry. For example, of the ten thousand channels, not less than six thousand will be devoted to Westerns, and about three thousand will deal with crime. Since these programmes will be broadcast over the whole world, travellers will no longer have to miss their favourite entertainment when they go abroad. Thus visitors to Switzerland or Bali won’t have to spend hours looking at boring scenery; their portable TV sets will keep them in touch with the real world.
It has been calculated that, by 1985, every adult American will appear on a panel show at least once a month, and because of the enormously increased importance of ratings and surveys, a whole new professional class will spring up – the full-time TV viewer. This will be a great boost to the economy, as it will absorb thousands of citizens who, owing to their low IQs, would be otherwise unemployable.
By the way, at least three of the ten thousand TV channels mentioned above will be largely devoted (apart from commercials) to educational and cultural matters.
(Clarke, 1979: 46-47.)
I don’t own a television, and therefore what I see of the Idiot’s Lantern is usually confined to whatever is on in the pub. I’ve based my observations on empirical data gathered over the past year or so, coupled with an examination of the schedules in today’s Daily Mirror. The televisual menu is uninspiring at best.
In 1978-9, while working on the LP The Wall, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd wrote ‘Got thirteen channels of shit on the TV to choose from.’ Things have moved on in 35 years – not necessarily in the right direction.
Martin H. recently bought himself a new TV, and was looking forward to spending the evening watching it. In the end, he channel-hopped for a while before decided that there was nothing worth watching. It could have been worse, mind – he could have spent the afternoon watching an endless parade of quizzes, programmes about antiques, property shows, and soap operas.
The Madison Avenue agency was wide of the mark when it projected 6,000 TV channels showing Westerns, of course. We don’t have ten thousand channels (yet), but in the UK there are several hundred available via Freeview and/or Sky. However, we do seem to have a large number of channels devoted to police shows – either fictional, like the regular CSI marathons on Channel 5, or factual, like Traffic Cops.
There are channels showing endless repeats of ‘classic’ comedy, which we’ve either seen a hundred times before, or which weren’t funny the first time around (see No Laughing Matter.) From my own observations, there are at least six channels devoted to nothing but sports coverage, another ten (at least) showing back-to-back films, and Goddess only knows how many selling cheap crap to an army of the elderly and housebound. (By the way, a female friend and I once watched the entire fourth series of Doctor Who back-to-back. It wasn’t much fun, though – she was the one facing the TV.)
The higher up the channel numbers go, the more bizarre the content becomes. There’s at least one station broadcasting blessings and prayers from some African-born evangelist, who offers to heal the sick in return for their credit card details. Once you get to 900+, you need to pay just to watch the programmes. I don’t need to tell what their content consists of, do I?
I did like Mr Clarke’s forecast of the US population appearing on panel shows, though, and his prediction of a professional TV audience. I did my bit by appearing on the long-dead quiz show Fifteen to One in December 1992 (see It’s Grand Oop North!) (Actually, the way the news is unfolding every day, I’ll be one of the few people who appeared on British TV during the nineties who hasn’t been charged with sexual offences!)
Little did Mr Clarke suspect that by 2010 there would be a class of television performers, who, owing to their low IQs, would otherwise be unemployable. They form the guest panel, the studio audience, and much of the home audience, for trashy ‘confesstainment’ shows presented by the likes of Jerry Springer in the US and Jeremy Kyle in the UK. (NB I hereby lay claim to the word ‘confesstainment.’ I’ve just Googled it and got absolutely no hits whatsoever. I’ve got a Trademark application pending, so use it at your peril!)
BBC2 used to be where the Thinking Man and Woman went to be educated, informed and entertained. I’ve recently downloaded the whole of J. Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973) and it’s streets ahead of anything that the BBC might show these days. Last night, I thoroughly enjoyed the first part of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969), even if his two-line dismissal of Islam’s mediaeval contribution to Western thought was a little cavalier. I’ve mentioned James Burke’s Connections and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in previous entries. I think they might have been the last great large-scale science documentaries shown on BBC2 – and Dr Sagan’s show was on when I was still doing my O Levels!
Now, anything the BBC chooses to do in this vein gets shoved onto BBC4, which (before the digital switchover) only a minority of the population could access. This afternoon and evening BBC2 is showing snooker for pretty much the entire schedule, followed by a documentary about the popular entertainer Michael Crawford. Entertaining, certainly. Informative? Perhaps? Educational? The jury’s still out on that one.
On its inception in 1982, Channel 4 was supposed to provide a home for the waifs and strays abandoned by BBC2. It trumpeted its highbrow documentaries, stimulating films, edgy dramas, and controversial comedies. The first programme ever shown on its launch was Countdown, and that goes strong to this day. Apart from that, today’s Channel 4 schedule is full of silly ‘reality’ shows like Come Dine With Me.
BBC4, of course, is the nearest we have in the UK to a channel ‘largely devoted to educational and cultural matters.’ I can’t help but wonder when the two similar channels foreseen by Mr Clarke will be launched.


CLARKE, A.C. (1979) The View From Serendip. (London: Pan Books)

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