Tech #29: Futurespeak - Predictions from Video Action Magazine

The December 1980 issue of Video Action contained an article by Mike Gold titled "Futurespeak".  The tagline reads:


My interest was piqued. Predictions from 33 years ago on the future of media: television, books, movies, etc.....  This had the makings of a must read.  In 1980, our living rooms were still a lot like the living rooms of 1960.  The television set was color, but the number of channels was basically the same.  The VCR and the "home arcade" were on the market, but hadn't yet penetrated your average household.  But change was in the air, and the technophiles could feel a major shift on the horizon.

This is a voice from that moment.  1980 homes are still stuck with one crummy TV with 3-5 crummy channels, but all this stuff is about to explode (although it would take several decades to fully realize most of the predictions in this article - via the internet).... and there's this guy, Mike Gold in Video Action magazine giving us his take on where all this is headed.

So, here's the article in its entirety.  I've also added my own comments throughout.  All the pictures within this post are taken directly from this issue of Video Action.

The cover of this issue of Video Action.  Note the "Futurespeak" headline
In spite of the vast technological revolution that has swept our society during the 32-year history of network television, the television medium itself has changed little. In 1948, a viewer could select from a limited number of types of programming: movies, sports, news, situation comedies, dramas, and theater. 
Since then, we have seen an incredible refinement in the manner in which these types of shows are presented -we now have global and even interplanetary capabilities. But we only have been able to add one truly original category to that above list - events - during the ensuing three decades. 
That we are on the cusp of a new era is not an original thought. Satellites, cable, home tape and d isc have all given us the potential for changing the video medium so thoroughly that, within the next five or ten years, it will not resemble its former self. Everything we expect to see on network television will still be there, but it will be competing with hundreds of different types of material. 
By the year 1990, nearly every viewer will be wired into cable television, or, at the very least, will be able to choose between two or three over-the-air pay television stations which will offer the most impressive qualities of cable television. 

I suppose this is fairly accurate for 1990; but by 2013, this is just hilarious. Two or three pay options? Try a damn near infinite amount of options - these days, you're only limited by the size of your wallet.

Over 20 per cent of all television households have cable or pay-TV today-by the end of the decade, energy crises and economic oblivion aside, this penetration could be complete. Video cassette recorders have been on the market in their most commercial form for less than five years, yet 2% of all television households already have them. Somebody in one out of every 50 homes and apartments decided to spend anywhere from $700 to $1,500 on a video cassette recorder (not to mention a lot of money on blank and pre-recorded tape) so that they can manipulate broadcast programming: they can tape a program in order to watch it at a more convenient time, or they can buy or rent a movie, concert or sports event and circumvent broadcast television entirely. This person layed out a lot of cash in a time when money became very, very tight-in a time when many consumers believe we are on the threshold of economic depression. All this is incredible, to be sure, but, to paraphrase the words of the immortal AI Jolson at the end of the first major talking motion picture: "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

Notice the amount of money we slobs in '79-'80 shelled out. Those damn things were expensive - but money was no object. Of course, what this article doesn't tell you is that most of the people who invested such ridiculous sums of money on VCRs intended to use them for porn. You can thank the porn brigade for supplying Sony and other VCR manufactures with enough capital to bring down the prices and pave the way for on-demand home entertainment!

All films 89 bucks!  And that's in 1980 dollars!

With the continued growth of cable television and video cassette recorders, and the forthcoming nationwide distribution of videodisc players, we presently have the technological capability of changing the very structure of our lives,- the very fabric of our society. With the advances that appear to be just around the corner, we are likely to be entering into an age so profoundly different it could not have been predicted by the most optimistic and futuristic science fiction writer. 
On the one hand, this is profoundly true - yes, the day would come when home entertainment surpassed your wildest prediction. However, to say that it is just around the corner was a tad bit optimistic. Things didn't really get "mind blowing" until broadband high-speed internet became commonplace.

The two most important components of this future growth are available today: two-way cable television and television sets with digital tuners capable of offering over 100 different channels. This latter component really is not necessary- some present-day tuners supplied by cable outfits are capable of selecting among up to four dozen different channels, but the built-in model (Zenith offers one with 100-plus capability) is vastly more convenient. 
Two-way cable, for those who have not been following the Qube experiment from Warner Communications, is similar to "traditional" cable with one important difference: it allows the viewer to talk back to the cable company. It allows for instant selection among a greater number of channels, it allows for the viewer to offer any of a variety of multiple-choice responses to issues that affect the entire community, and it allows for "Nielsen" type ratings which will give programmers an instant and complete picture of the public's response to its efforts. (This third aspect of two-way cable, instant ratings, is the subject of some controversy in many neighborhoods that are considering cable proposals. It seems some people believe a diary of their television habits could be made available to junk mail companies and the like, and that such capability therefore would be in violation of their right to privacy. Given recent trends in marketing and information-gathering, these concerns are not entirely unfounded and such capabilities probably will have to be safeguarded in order for two-way cable to gain national acceptance.) 
They were worried in 1980 about having their channel selections monitored for marketing and info gathering. Well, isn't that just adorable?  Today, this is as natural as breathing.  The NSA not only monitors your every breath, but it archives it.  Welcome to 2013.

Two-way cable television can offer us untold opportunities. Entertainment programming will change greatly. To be sure, everything we have come to expect from television will still be there: programs like M *A •S•H and Charlie's Angels are too popular to be anything less than a major factor in the market. But network television adequately supplies us with this, and network television will find itself competing with a lot of other types of material, each chipping a tiny segment away from its previous audience. 
Spot on prediction.  In other words, network television will continue to supply the masses with vacuous drivel (i.e. reality television) while the new channels meet a wider range of needs.  Hence, Breaking Bad - a show that wouldn't have lasted past the first season were it not for Netflix Instant.  I can't even comprehend a world where NBC puts out something like Mad Men or Game of Thrones.

"Narrowcasting" is one of those unfortunate, instant-cliche words that, nonetheless, describes exactly what is going on. If the networks provide " broadcasting" for the majority, "narrowcasting" is for the minority. For example, opera attracts legions of enthusiasts-people who usually are willing to spend $15, $25 or more to see a production. Unfortunately, there are not many of these people, so opera is not an element of network television. In fact, opera is rarely found on public broadcast stations, and potential opera-goers living in smaller cities have to enjoy it on a catch-as-catch-can basis. With two-way television and 100-plus station receivers, opera fans can enjoy their passion several times a week. 

Unfortunately, predictions such as these often over-estimate the American IQ.  Sorry.  No matter how many channels your cable box can support - there's not going to be an opera channel.  There's an Oprah channel, but not opera.  Of course, the internet can satisfy your every niche desire (hence, Retrospace).  With the internet you can watch opera all day long 7 days a week, until the fat lady sings.

Death Rage, Dixie Dynamite and The Devil's Rain?  Hell yes.  You make some popcorn and I'll bring the beer - it's going to be a long night. 

With high-quality stereo optical ("laser") videodiscs, opera fans will be able to see and hear their favorites whenever they want. The same is true with other forms of entertainment that presently do not attract sufficient audience to make it on network or public television with any regularity: all types of jazz, ballet, even punk rock. 
Better still, the fact that enthusiasts of these types of entertainment will have access to them will encourage others to get involved. Being community based, cable television can provide opportunities for local opera, ballet, rock and jazz groups et al. to perform for the public, get feedback, improve their techniques and, hopefully, gain wider exposure. This capability will be even more profound for community and scholastic groups. Instead of performing "Virginia Woolf" in the high school auditorium- or, more likely, in addition to the high school auditorium community theater can perform over the cable community access station and reach the entire town. Local versions of The Tonight Show can and will spring up, offering hometown singers, comedians and politicians the opportunity to gain city-wide exposure. 

It's interesting to hear these predictions of social media years before the existence of the world wide web. They predict fairly accurately the rise of the "local" becoming elevated to the "global".  Unfortunately, most of that has come to mean a particularly cute kitten video can get 5 million views.  Yet, there is a world-changing truth that events that were once localized, now have implications around the planet.

Candidates for municipal offices will be able to meet the people via television, debate each other, and learn the public's opinions through the feedback buttons on the two-way cable box. With home video cameras, television phone-in shows will be even more impressive than their radio counterparts. Games -be it chess, checkers, or Space Invaders- can be operated on a community level, with winners of month-long competitions going on to regional contests, and eventually on to state, national and even world-wide competitions. Audience participation on game shows will take on a whole different meaning. But even that is only the beginning. 

Right before I sat down to type this post, I played a few rounds of Call of Duty where I was literally fighting against and communicating with people around the world.  Sort of a "community Space Invaders" described in the article, but with a level of realism and interaction unfathomable in 1980.

If - or more likely when - an interlock devise can be perfected to prevent ballot-stuffing, people can do their voting from the privacy and convenience of their own living rooms, if the more savvy politicians ever sit still for it. 

Oh, how terribly sad.  I'm terribly depressed to report that voting is as back-assward in 2013 as it was in 1980.... and a whole lot more convoluted and open to corruption.  Our congressmen and senators are so godawful, that even monumental advances in technology can't disrupt their sick society.  They still operate in a gilded bubble, free of the potentially therapeutic transformation that technology could bring. But I digress..

More than a dozen channels can be set aside for shoppers. Realtors no doubt will want to showcase new homes on television, and people interested in buying a new house will be able to preview via television. Credit card holders with cable television and a telephone will be able to view and order all types of goods-fashions, stereo systems, even the latest in video techno logy. Orders might be taken through the talk-back capability of two-way cable. Most cable outlets already offer news and weather print-outs. 
With two-way cable and the international networks of computer systems and libraries, virtually everything that appears on the printed page can be called up for the home screen. The system is called, variously, "teletext" and "videotext," and it is so important this magazine is devoting a three-issue series to the subject. Of course, " teletext" can be offered on optical videodisc systems. Since viewers can freeze-frame any one "picture" without wearing out the videodisc, and the more upscale models will have instant-access ability to any one specific frame, the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica can be offered on one side of an optical (laser-system) videodisc. 
In fact, since the optical videodisc can offer 54,000 different "pages" of information per disc, home historians can purchase a 100-year run of The New York Times on a set of less than four dozen discs, and probably will pay around $500.00 for the opportunity (that is five hundred 1980 dollars, of course). This may be hard to believe, but a library containing one million books can be compressed into less than 6,000 optical videodiscs. Those one million books can be stored on five 15-foot shelves, each slightly more than one foot apart. You can put every book ever published in your own closet. Yes, even the dirty ones. 

FYI - All the data in the entire Library of Congress is estimated at 20 terabytes. Right now, you get that on Amazon for about $2K.  It's a box measuring 6.8 x 7.7 x 8.6 inches weighing 16.8 pounds.

Don't remember that episode of Too Close For Comfort where Monroe got raped in the back of a van by a pack of lesbians?  No problem.  Netflix and Torrents are here to help.

Reading books on television can be difficult, although it will be a boon to those hard-of-seeing who happen to own a wide-screen projection television system. However, we are only one major technological breakthrough away from making videobooks practical. For some years now, a number of companies have been working on the development of "thin" television sets-less than one inch thick. Several researchers have been able to come up with prototype models in the neighborhood of three inches in diagonal, black and white, the more proficient of which using liquid crystals similar to those found in inexpensive pocket calculators. These thin television sets will allow you to turn an entire wall of your apartment or home into a giant television screen, with a picture quality far better than that of wide-screen projection systems. A single cable will come out from the corner of the screen and lead to your cable tuner, video cassette and/ or disc player, home computer, or (most likely) video switcher. 
Of course, such thin sets will be available in every size, including several hand-held models. When they perfect a thin television, probably using liquid crystals, measuring approximately seven inches diagonally, the publishing industry will no longer need paper. Instead, a video card backed with a magnetic tape-like coating will be inserted into the lightweight hand-held set, which will be slightly wider than your average paperback book. You will be able to read any book on television anywhere you could have read a paperback, except, of course, the bathtub.
This is the only logical solution to the massive paper shortage. Publishers will print promotional literature in order to "sell" the book, and will supply bookdealers with encoded master tapes which will be used to make magnetic video cards. In other words, if you want a copy of the latest Stephen King thriller, you will go to a bookstore (or possibly to a vending machine) and buy the book on a video card that will be imprinted on the spot, in seconds. 

I find this section particularly interesting.  The author is so close, but just not quite able to get over the hump of the internet.  No need to go to a bookstore or vending machine - simply access the web and bingo.  I can find and download a Stephen King novel in less than a minute without leaving my chair.

The the prediction that paper media would go bye-bye is eerily accurate.  We live in a time when newspaper companies that have prospered for a hundred years are shutting their doors.  When bookstores - which used to be ubiquitous - are nearing extinction.  It's an amazing crossrover in human communication that we all exist in. You reading this post is a perfect example.

This particularly will be useful to magazine publishers. These days, a magazine publisher often has to print at least three magazines for every two copies-or sometimes one-he or she sells on the newsstands. With video cards, magazine publishers only have to print re-usable masters, and newsstands will be supplying their customers the latest issues on the spot. Readers with credit cards and home video card printing machines will be able to get the latest issues over the telephone or over cable television. Publishers will be able to send out subscription copies at the current rate of regular one-ounce first-class mail. Packrats, historians and hobbiests will be ab!e to order back-copies off of old master tapes, kept by the publisher and at various central periodical libraries. By inserting the videobook or videomagazine card into a special print-out machine and cuing up the proper location. readers will be able to obtain a paper print-out-a facsimile- of any page or section they so desire. 
Eventually, books and magazines can be offered over special encoded cable lines, transmitted over cable television or telephone directly to the print-out machine. Of course, the Playboy centerfold will suffer, but the price of magazines and books will stabilize and, possibly even go down. The price of paper certainly will plummet. Indeed, paper for the office will be somewhat less important, as video technology takes over there as well. Already, letters are being transmitted over telephone lines by electronic reproduction machines-video technology will do this a lot faster, and with greater reproduction quality. If 54,000 pages of an encyclopedia can. be stored on one videodisc, then 54,000 invoices, letters, catalog pages and the like can be stored on videodisc as well. Such discs will be cheaper than microfilm, be more accessable with instant search capabilities, and take up less storage space. As a matter of fact, the Pioneer company, which plans on introducing its Laserdisc optical videodisc player in a few months, has been making industrial videodisc machines for some time now.  
With home computers and two-way cable technology, many people will be able to work at home instead of coming down to the office. Meetings can be held via television with home cameras, legal documents can be viewed across the country, most secretarial work can be accomplished via two-way ... the possibilities are . endless. 

This is of particular relevance to me.  I work from home (and travel once or twice a month).  I live in a world of video-conferences, endless email threads, and PDFs issued back and forth in rapid fire.  The idea that you have to fill up a chair at an office somewhere is becoming more and more obsolete.

As those of us who watch television commercials know, with video technology and computer access, many types of information, including medical and legal, can be transmitted instantly. Lawyers will be able to compress entire legal libraries running into the hundreds of books onto two or three optical videodiscs. Even if one per cent of the population will be able to work at home or at extra-office work centers, the fuel savings will be substantial. If shoppers shift as little as 5% of their purchases over to cable television, an additional fuel saving will be realized. If people go out to see fewer movies, there will be yet another saving of fuel. 
This is not to say we will become a nation of homebodies, although, admittedly, the potential is there. No matter how big the television screen gets and how good the stereo sound becomes, people are still going to want to go out to see plays and hear music performed live. As we hear all the time-usually from network vice-presidents-radio did not kill movies and television did not kill radio. However, it is important to realize these advances did alter their predecessors, and video technology will have its impact as well. We already are seeing a trend towards bigger movies-films so big they can not be contained by the television screen. You have to go out to the theater in order to get the full enjoyment from " big" movies like Star Wars and Superman. We will be seeing more and more movies made in 70mm with multi-track Dolby sound, and we will be going out to see them, and we probably will be paying more for the privilege. 

Pretty damn accurate.  To entice folks to actually leave their home, films have gradually become more and more spectacular - something that a home entertainment center wouldn't do justice.  Unfortunately, this has also led to higher ticket prices..... which has led the filmmakers to have to up the ante even further to entice audiences to shell out that kind of money.  A vicious cycle.  Now we have shit like a Pirates of the Caribbean film costing $300 million in a desperate attempt to create a spectacle worthy of the exorbitant price.

This will not stifle creativity and production-quite the opposite. Filmmakers with a less-than-commercial concept, by today's terms, are likely to find their audience through cable television and home video tape and disc. We are a nation of over 225 million people, and that covers a lot of tastes and desires. In the past, television has met only a fraction of them. Those days are gone forever, Folks.  


  1. This article is so accurate. While I love the instant connectivity and convenience that technology has brought us, I still miss the collective experience that limited technology brought us. Oh well, I will someday be gone and future generations will someday call today's current technologies limited.

    1. I forgot to add that this article was so accurate that I am currently watching MASH as I write this. Too cool.

  2. This was a lonnng read but worth it--I can't stop chuckling over people wanting "Oprah not Opera"!! I'd love to show this to some of the younger folk I work with... just a couple months ago, I was talking about my first job (at a GC Murphys) in 1981. Our manager proudly bought one of those big clunky vcrs for over $1000 and the movie "Superman", and said the film set him back 89.00. When we remarked "you bought a thousand dollar machine to watch one movie?" He told us his daughter was going to tape shows like "Laverne & Shirley" & "Three's Company to watch on the weekend.

    I just remember people scratching their heads--"but those shows are on a Tuesday, why would you want to watch them on the weekend?" It was almost sacrilege!

  3. So Gilligan, we've read what someone in 1980 predicted for 1990. What do you predict, sitting from your chair, for 2024?

  4. This was great! Closer than some forecasts I've read.