Coming to a screen near you


The credibility question looming over the television reviewer may be expressed like this: can one person ever be knowledgeable in enough subjects to do the job properly? Drama, news, sport, movies, music, ballet, comedy - television is a medium not a subject. But if television is a many splendoured thing already, just wait.

By the middle of this year, terrestrial digital subscribers will be able to receive e-mail. A new service via Sky Digital, Open, will encourage you to shop on-line, check your bank account, buy a holiday and order a delivery from Iceland (the frozen food shop rather than the country). You will be watching Casualty and a caption will suddenly appear over it, saying, "You have new mail." The new mail will be your bill from Iceland.

A telephone symbol might flash on the screen. It's the phone. An internal microphone in the TV will allow you to reply to the call without lifting your receiver. While you are talking, you can take the opportunity to call up in a corner of the screen the images of your snoozing infant upstairs. The doorbell goes, or rather it doesn't but a knocker logo has appeared on the TV. At another corner of the screen, you see who's at the door. It is the Iceland delivery man.

And once our televisions start behaving like computers with modems, we will begin to think of them as computers. Downloading will be the new word for recording a programme. Up to 500 hours of programmes will be kept fresh in a short-term memory or "fridge", and 1,000 hours in the "freezer", deep-chilling your own personal TV archive.

The key to all this is John Birt's favourite word, "digital". Because digital signals are so compressed, it leaves Birt, Sky and you and me to do other things with our 625 precious lines. Digital's own images are also most infinitely manipulable. In time you will even be able to graft an animation of yourself over and in place of the newsreader reading the news - a personalised solution to what I predict will next year become known as the Six o'Clock News problem.

I trouble you with these visions because, the week before Christmas, I sat for two hours with the experts from Philips as they popped my eyes with the next big things in viewing. Behind us was their newest television set, the catchily named 28DW6734, which for under £1,000 is the first telly not only to receive digital terrestrial without an additional decoder but also has a slot for the On Digital card. Philips claims it is future-proof, because it can take add-ons (such as a small clip-on box to decode Sky Digital) and its software can be upgraded over the air. If you are buying a new TV next year and have not already invested in other digital boxes, this may be the one to buy.

The only problem was that, as we talked, the integrated digital television was making a Star Trek episode out of Can't Cook, Won't Cook. Time kept stopping and a celebrity chef would be transformed into 100 rectangular shards of himself. The men from Philips testily assured me these faults would be overcome, even before Christmas.

Yet I shall not be rushing to exchange my present, perfectly good TV set for something hipper just yet. The issue here is not digital but widescreen. Widescreens come in dimensions of a 16x9 ratio, the shape in which prestige programmes such as Vanity Fair have been filmed for some time now. Feature films are even wider and thinner than this, but at least you lose less of them or suffer smaller top and bottom margins watching on a widescreen TV. The problem is that most programmes (two-thirds) and all American ones are still made in old-fashioned 4x3.

The broadcasters' response is amateur. With no consistency, they box, they frame and they distort to make the old squares fill 16x9 or almost fill it (14x9). The result is that people frequently look fatter on super digital widescreen than on unsexy 4x3 analogue. The other day I saw a Sky screening of the next season of Friends and (rightly) could not believe the girth on Courtney Cox. The new Philips TV allows you to fiddle and pick the amount of frame or the amount of distortion you want.

Although I am assured that very soon 100 per cent of prime-time television will be widescreen - what of Friends or all those news reports filmed or edited on rusty old 4x3 equipment? - my guess is that we will be pressing buttons to straighten out pictures for some time yet. This, if nothing else, will be good practice for pressing Channel Whatever to let in the man from Iceland and God knows what other heralds of Television's Future. The New Statesman will need to employ an army to keep an eye on them.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium