500 TV channels? Or none at all?


Everybody's heard about the coming world of 500 TV channels, right? Well, everybody heard wrong.

In a recent panel discussion in Washington, QVC's chief executive, Barry Diller, noted that the notion of the 500-channel universe is about a year old, and he recounted how it got its start.

It seems, Mr. Diller said, that Tele-Communications Inc. President John Malone was at a trade show, holding a news conference to announce an advance in digital compression, a technology that lets programmers cram more channels onto one wire.

During a wide-ranging discussion of the new technology, a reporter asked the hypothetical question of whether this technology could accommodate 500 channels?

As Mr. Diller recalls it, Mr. Malone said maybe.

"Thus was born the 500-channel network," Mr. Diller said.

In fact, there is not, and will not be, any such animal. Among those who truly have a vision of the telecommunications future, the notion of 500 channels is laughably limited.

Raymond Smith, the Bell Atlantic chief executive who is emerging as the Che Guevara of the telecommunications revolution, says people will have to rethink the whole idea of channels as cable television melds with the telephone system.

"It's the infinite channel," he told reporters last month before a Senate hearing on his company's planned merger with TCI. "We won't be talking about channels at all in the year 2000. It will be quaint."

In effect, Mr. Smith was talking about a switched, interactive television system that will let people who want to put something on television do so as long as they can pay -- or get viewers to pay -- for the bandwidth they chew up.

So if you're a cranky billionaire with a gripe against the government, you won't have to go groveling to broadcasters or cable operators for tube time. You'll buy some newspaper (electronic or otherwise) ads and tell potential viewers which numbers to punch to watch your show.

Obviously, such a world allows a boundless freedom of expression. And wherever there is free expression, offensive ideas will be expressed. And wherever offensive ideas are expressed, the offended will want them suppressed.

This scenario will put the company that owns the wire in a real bind. As a common carrier, it will be expected to be open to all. But if extremist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, launch programming, you can bet that congressmen will start railing against the "greedy" executives who take their money.

Hauled before a congressional committee, the executives might argue that extremist groups have always been free to use the telephone to exercise their First Amendment rights without censorship by the phone company. All that's changed, they will say, is the addition of pictures.

Anyone who expects such common sense to appease Congress when it's in an indignant mood is an incredible optimist. TV-phone company executives could see a move to exclude video from common carrier status. Then Congress could pressure the companies to become censors -- a thankless, profitless role that would involve them in endless litigation.

So, Mr. Smith, good luck with your vision of a brave new world in telecommunications. But you might want to think of retiring before it actually arrives.

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