Towards TV 2000


Time marches on in television – and Channel marches on too!

John Henwood
John Henwood, Managing Director

THE Shackleton, still in service with the RAF, is a direct descendant of the most famous of all World War II bombers, the Lancaster. That makes the design almost 50 years old. If the First World War’s Sopwith Camel had enjoyed such longevity it would have seen action during the Suez crisis instead of the Migs and Hunters which actually screeched across the skies over Egypt.

What has this to do with television? Well, nothing at all actually. I use it simply as an illustration of the paradoxical nature of change. The progress of television has been both a harbinger of change and, by its very being, has caused society to alter.

Like the Shackleton’s airframe, television has changed very little since its emergence as a medium of popular communication. Pictures and sound are generated in one place, scattered over the ether and collected on a screen in another place. Oh yes, the pictures are now in colour and their quality is immeasurably better. Production standards have steadily improved, the range of programmes increased and the hours of availability extended. But for all that television is the same basic entity that first amazed audiences around 50 years ago.

Yet at the same time television broadcasting now is as sharply different from those first faltering programmes as is the string and canvas bi-plane compared with the supersonic jet.

Today most people in the western world are kept informed via television. It is the first choice for news and information about what is going on in the world, and for those fortunate enough to live in an area small enough to be served by a local television station, it also provides comprehensive coverage of happenings in our own back yards.

By informing the audience in a detailed and accurate way it helps to shape individual views on the full range of public topics. Public awareness of every major issue is much greater than it could ever have been had television never been invented. Thus it has changed society in ways unimaginable 50 years ago. One powerful example; the nightly beaming of the horrors of the Vietnam war into millions of American homes over many years was eventually largely responsible for the spontaneous public demand for the United States to end hostilities. No amount of newspaper articles or even radio broadcasts could have had such a profound effect on public opinion. Today’s green issues, major environmental worries, are best illustrated on television and we are presently witnessing an upwelling of public concern and consequent political interest in the dangers of pollution of the environment. Would the ozone layer. North Sea pollution or the destruction of rain forests hold real meaning for anyone except scientists and a handful of intellectuals without the probing focus of television?

Today we are on the brink of a massive expansion in television communication. Images will still be produced in one place and delivered in another, but the number and diversity of images and their methods of delivery are changing so fast it makes your head spin. Television has cracked the problem of space travel. During Telethon ‘88 Channel Television’s programme was screened throughout the British Isles, live from St Helier. Amazingly the signal left Jersey in an almost vertical direction, travelling around 22 thousand miles to a tiny piece of hardware, a communications satellite, in geostationary orbit over the equator. (Geostationary simply means it moves at a constant speed relative to the earth so it’s always above the same spot on the planet). The signal then bounced a similar distance back to a reception point in the South of England for re-radiation around the ITV network. A journey of around 44,000 miles to cover a horizontal distance of about 200 miles. There’s nothing special about this technology; today it’s commonplace, particularly in the trafficking of news pictures from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, from Britain to Yemen.

With the launch this year of the Astra satellite, soon to be followed by the British direct broadcasting satellite operated by BSB, this form of transmission will be used, not just for the passing of information between broadcast professionals, but also for consumption by the public at large. For a few hundred pounds viewers can obtain a range of television services which do not rely on transmitters as we know them — they come straight out of the sky. The ‘cosmic highway’ is open and soon the traffic in television signals will stream through directly into our homes. But how long will it be, I wonder, before the TV pirates go on the air? At the moment it costs hundreds of millions of pounds to put a satellite up, but in less time than the span from bi-plane to jet there will be spare hardware in space. Some early entrepreneurs will go broke and abandon their pioneering projects, leaving spare capacity in the skies. Who will use it, the porn peddlers and subversives or the electronic cash-register-churches? The potential exists for the dream of ultimate popular communication to become a nightmare of thought control.

A man stands next to a man seated at a control panel
Managing Director John Henwood with Transmission Controller Roy Heaven

This, though, is not a time for doom and gloom, there is potential for bad in practically every aspect of life, yet more often than not things turn out well and society moves forward. Despite all the challenges that lie ahead I feel a great sense of optimism about the future of television. More does not necessarily mean better, but neither does it automatically mean worse and people will welcome the greater range of choice in programmes and channels. They will welcome too the technological advances which will provide flat screen TV with stereo sound and a picture image so sharp that makeup artists will have to learn new skills. Personal TV is already with us, and before long videotape recorders will be the size of pocket dictating machines, whilst the domestic video camera will be little bigger than a cigarette packet yet producing pictures of equal quality to today’s expensive broadcast cameras.

As the 20th century draws towards its close and we peek cautiously at the near science-fiction image of the year 2000, what will the changes mean to the ordinary families in their homes in St Helier and St Peter Port?

There will probably be 30 or 40 television channels available to them via perfectly ordinary domestic equipment and many more with the application of slightly more sophisticated kit. Most people, I suspect, will seldom watch more than four or at the most six. Almost all channels will be aimed at mass audiences of several million viewers. Most people, I believe, will still want a good quality service reflecting life in their own small communities and that is a role which Channel Television aims to go on fulfilling right up to the start of the next century and well beyond.

To look further than ten or 11 years is almost impossible, but whatever developments occur, I firmly believe that whilst communities like ours really, genuinely want to retain a vigorous local television service, it must always be possible to find a way of providing it. After all (and to return to the aviation analogy) Concorde and the jumbo jets are great, but where would the Channel Islands be without the Trislander?

After a year of development, the opening of the new television centre makes a better statement than any words of mine about the Company’s commitment to serving the Channel Islands.


The Lee Barnard Collection in the Transdiffusion Archives

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