Time to think outside the box

You could watch a show you missed while on the train, and even shape dramas to your personal tastes.

These days, we grab our music from the net and listen to it while we're jogging. We watch the films we want, when and where we want to, on DVD. If we're wondering how the traffic is flowing on southern California's freeways, an LA radio station will tell us at the click of a mouse. Yet the telly still expects us to hunker down on the couch and stare at "channels" of output assembled by aptly named "controllers".

It is true that around 400 channels are now available to digital TV subscribers, and that they can time-shift their programmes with ever-cleverer recording devices such as Sky Plus and TiVo. Even so, taken together, these channels still provide only a fraction of what we might nowadays expect from the most versatile medium humanity has come up with. Why shouldn't we be able to call up whatever audio-visual material we want? Why shouldn't we be able to interact with it, cannibalise it or e-mail it to our mates? And why shouldn't we be able to do any of these things whenever and wherever we want to?

Broadband transmission makes all these things technically possible. In the digital universe, television, as much as music, art or literature, is readily reducible to a string of numbers which can be sent anywhere in an instant. And television, with its commercial, civic and educational potential on top of its obvious entertainment possibilities, appears to have even more to gain from the broadband revolution than music or games. Yet, for the moment, a broadband connection will not bring you very much extra TV.

There are reasons why telly has tarried. Moving pictures require much more bandwidth than speech or music. This means that the slower of the broadband connections currently available cannot deliver full-blown TV in real time: you have to download it first and play it later. Programming is also expensive to make, yet cyber-revenue is notoriously hard to come by. Pickings for advertisers are slim, and the micro-payment systems that might make subscription easier are not yet in place. Rights issues are a serious problem, which the fear of piracy exacerbates.

Another difficulty is that the long-predicted "convergence" between computers and television sets has stubbornly failed to materialise. Broadband connections generally go to computers, but people want to be able to watch entertainment on their fancy plasma wide-screens, not just on a monitor in the study.

Still, this last problem is about to be cracked. Manufacturers are coming up with gadgets that will switch audio-visual material from our computers to our TVs or hi-fi systems at the click of a remote control. Other factors, too, are encouraging television companies to take broadband rather more seriously than before. Increasingly they fear that if they stay on the sidelines as take-up gathers pace, the public might discover a way of stealing their property, as happened to the music business. Even worse, they might see growth opportunities that ought to be theirs seized instead by rival producers.

Website owners, internet service providers such as Wanadoo, the people who own the wires such as BT and purpose-built new organisations are themselves starting to become programme suppliers. It is the music website Playlouder, for example, that has become the "official webcaster" for the Glastonbury festival, not a broadcaster. In London, a service called "HomeChoice" enables its subscribers to summon films, music and time-shifted conventional programming direct to their TV sets down their telephone lines. The cable firm NTL now offers broadband customers 15 channels of its own mu- sic, games, learning materials and children's programming.

Britain's other cable company, Telewest, has experimented with more imaginative ideas, including a service called "Living Health", which enabled Birmingham subscribers to check out symptoms through their TV. If there seemed cause for concern, they could then use their set to book an appoint- ment with their GP. If they could not wait that long, they could scroll down to "Nurse-in-vision", which would provide an on-screen expert with whom they could discuss their problem. This kind of thing has persuaded traditional broadcasters that they must at last take the plunge if they are not to be left hopelessly behind.

So far, it is Channel 4 that has made the biggest splash, with its 24-hour live streaming of life in the Big Brother house - still many people's only actual experience of broadband television. The station has followed up with 4Broadband, which, for £4.95 a month, offers subscribers access to shows they may have missed. It is also asking its suppliers to consider making programmes specifically for broadband. Sky now offers a broadband channel called Sky Sports News, which provides not just hundreds of clips of sports highlights and sports news, but also general news, film trailers and comedy clips. ITV, too, has waded in, streaming highlights from Pop Idol.

The small financial rewards currently available still limit the horizons of commercial broadcasters. The BBC, on the other hand, considers that expanding provision may enhance its case for the maintenance of the licence fee. So the corporation intends to make as much as possible of its programme archive freely accessible to everyone.

This opens up all kinds of possibilities. For example, children might eventually be able to plunder old programmes for material to insert in video homework projects. The first 2,000 clips in the "Creative Archive", available from this autumn, consist of material for which the BBC already owns all the rights, but negotiations are under way with other rights-holders to get the system extended.

The BBC will provide broadband coverage of Euro 2004 and the Athens Olympics over and above what is broadcast on conventional television, along with games, facts and statistics. It is also looking for ways in which broadband could extend the reach of conventionally broadcast output. Participants in a trial scheme will be enabled to download BBC programmes on to their computers, and thence on to hand-held devices. This will enable them to catch up with shows they may have missed while commuting on a bus or train the next day.

Are these the first, faltering steps towards a digital TV world in which broadband might even come to replace conventional broadcasting completely? Maybe. If so, what might that mean?

By maximising its opportunities to reach us, television might recover some of the grip on our lives it has lost in recent years to other leisure activities. It would, however, also face new difficulties. As viewers gained ever more control, they would become harder to reach with advertisements. The television licensing system might be imperilled, if the question of what constituted a TV set became debatable.

More significantly, television programming itself would probably change. Interactivity would be taken for granted: if, for example, we turned out to want drama plots shaped to our personal tastes, alternative versions of the same story would be readily deliverable. Television would cease to be controlled by a small priesthood for narrowly defined purposes, but would become something that anyone could distribute to anyone. Doubtless businesses, public authorities, political parties and pressure groups would all pile in.

Individuals, too, would be likely to want their own piece of the action. Once, photography was the province of professionals; now, it has been democratised. Something similar might happen to television. Broadband might enable us to pass round to our friends not just our own home videos, but also bits of TV acquired from anywhere else, edited, reworked, commented on and absorbed into our own electronic scrapbooks. The webcam video diary might merge with the weblog, moby chatter and texting to turn each of our lives into our own personal soap opera. Who knows?

Television may currently be broadband's laggard child. But it could yet turn out to be the most prodigious of the thick pipe's mewling progeny.