The television world is going to change in 1994, industry executives say, but not so you would notice - if you are a viewer, that is.
Talk raged in 1993 about the video revolution to come, but as the year ended many of those who had started the talk were retrenching a bit. More common were cautionary warnings about the unrestrained hype that had created an expectation of 500 channels in the near future.More and more, there were suggestions that in the next few years anyway, viewers might find themselves watching television pretty much as they always have: specific programs on specific channels, available at specific times.
Among many others, Barry Diller of QVC Network Inc., who spent much of his year looking to build a new empire on the acquisition of Paramount, was calling the 500-channel prediction little more than whimsy.
Before a large forum of industry leaders in November, he indicated that significant change in the television business looms five or even 10 years down the road.
Diller, 51, believes the changes to come will present "an extraordinary opportunity," but added that he now only hopes he will be able to take advantage of them within his working lifetime.
"More and more people are agreeing that the notion of 500 channels has lost its sheen," said Howard Stringer, head of the CBS Broadcast Group. "There will be interest among some people in all these things you'll be able to do with a television set. But the rest of us will go on with life as usual. Most people don't regard television as an engineering course, but as a entertainment vehicle."
Lisabeth Barron, a media analyst, said, "I think you're going to see more and more studies about consumer demand and they will conclude that no matter how many choices people have, they will watch the same seven or eight choices."
Another analyst, John Tinker, said he had detected "a real backlash to the multimedia hype," adding "there's a reality forming about how high the stakes are."
This does not mean that change is not about to come to television. It only means that most industry executives expect it to inch, not gallop, forward.
The most immediate changes, many executives believe, will take place in the relationships between program producers and program distributors. Nothing made this so clear as the announcements by two Hollywood studios that they intended to get into the broadcast network business.
Paramount and Warner Brothers each want to create a network because they expect the existing networks, CBS, ABC, NBC and Fox, are going to start making more and more of their own programs.
Federal regulations that had limited the financial interest networks could take in the shows they scheduled have been lifted.
"I don't see any radical change for our company," said David Westin, the president of production for Capital Cities/ABC Inc. "But in the next year or so, I would expect you might see all sorts of new deals between networks and studios, joint ventures and creative financing of programs."
NBC President Robert Wright said he expected the net effect of the changes in the financial interest rules to be gradual, but, "We will surely spend a lot more time with NBC Productions" - the network's in-house production unit.
Wright said the networks have to look at the studios, their traditional suppliers of programming, as "potential competitors."
Though Wright said he still believed it unlikely that a studio would acquire a network outright - or vice versa - he said he would not be surprised to see a studio like Disney announce some kind of overall program development project with a network like CBS.
In terms of programming, Wright said viewers could surely expect more news magazines.
With new networks looking to add stations, the existing networks are also likely to find new ways to strengthen bonds with their own affiliates.
Westin said ABC intended to "find new ways we can do business together." One way, he said, was to find uses in some of Capital Cities' growing international investments for local programs produced by its affiliated stations.
Westin added that "brand identity" is going to be increasingly emphasized as the existing television entities seek to hold their audiences' loyalty.
"As time goes on, the idea of having a brand name people resort to will be enormously valuable." The best entities, he said, will be the established brands like the broadcast networks, and the easily defined cable networks, like CNN, ESPN and Nickelodeon.