"If we were to project what TV would be like 10 years from now, we would still get more wrong than right," said TV Guide in 1995.
Speculating on the future of television technology, writer Greg Fagan described the DVD as an "advance in digital wizardry," television as "a garden of ideas waiting to be plucked, processed, and displayed on the shelves of computer stores" and websites as "info kiosks in cyberspace."
The article is particularly ripe for a revisitation now, as the television industry reinvents itself, again. Many of us have unplugged our cable boxes in favor of streaming t.v. Cable providers are abandoning their business models to accommodate comtemporary veiwing by unbundling, offering channels a-la-carte instead of charging for 200 channels, 185 of which are never watched. Networks like HBO, Nickelodeon and Showtime are starting to offer their own stand-alone streaming options, allowing consumers to only pay for what they know they'll watch. The future of t.v. is TBD.
With 20/20 hindsight, let's take a look at how the television industry has changed since its last big bang twenty years ago.
Here's what TV Guide got right and wrong about their future, our present.
What they got right
Atari Jaguar and Philips cd-i will die
Game mavens say the arrival of these new, high-end devices [Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, and 3dO M2]—which allow much slicker games than those currently on the market—means trouble for the Philips CD-i and Atari Jaguar machines... Clearly, not all of these systems will survive.
Sad, but true. Atari discontinued the Jaguar in 1996—a year since the article was published—after moving only 250,000 units despite the popularity of games like Alien vs Predator, Tempest 2000 and Doom. The failure of Jaguar prompted the demise of Atari in general.
Philips CD-i (Compact Disc Interactive) was a game console with a CD-ROM drive. The console was popular for video games as well as educational programs like interactive encyclopedias and museum tours. CD-i was discontinued in 1998 and Philips lost almost one billion dollars on the project. Jaguar and CD-i were the last forays into the game console industry for Atari and Phillips. The 'game mavens' were right on this one.
TV will become interactive
Have a seat and order any movie you wish to see, shop for new dishes, check and pay your credit card balance, and, if you missed Home Improvement last night, just call it up to watch now. That's 'interactive TV.' Turning the old boob tube into an interactive mini-mall where you pick what you watch—including the commercials—will be big business."
In the '90s, choosing what to watch meant watching a slow scroll of program listings on the TV Guide channel until you either found your program or gave up. In 1999, TeVo was introduced, allowing viewers to not only search for programs, but also record shows to watch later. Bundled cable, internet and phone subscriptions like Verizon Fios came on the scene in the mid-2000s, making on-demand content and interactive features commonplace.
But the most advanced changes in television aren't actually taking place on television, but on the internet. Here, user data is harvested into algorithmically optimized profiles of tastes and preferences that have radically streamlined the way we watch tv. Take Hulu, for example, where you can actually choose which ads you watch, at least to some degree.
People will talk about television on the internet
Folks who own a modem-equipped personal computer (and know how to use it) can already subscribe to online services. Many of them have bulletin boards where people chat (that is, post and read electronic notes) about TV and entertainment. The networks use these outlets like info kiosks in cyberspace... Look for the next big trend to find fans of shows like The X-Files (which already has an internet location) to join in virtual TV parties—large groups of people, each watching the same show in the solitude of his or her home, conversing with on another through cyberspace. Best news: At a virtual TV party, you don't have to worry about visitors grinding munchies into your carpet.
AOL chatrooms started around 1993 and by 1997, the year AOL launched its stand-alone instant messenger (AIM), the internet hosted an estimated 19,000 chatrooms. AIM still had 53 million active users worldwide when it joined forces with Windows Live Messenger (formally known as MSN Messenger) in 2006.
IMing and chatrooms have been largely replaced by social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. 'Message boards' or forums are still popular. Reddit was founded in 2005 and was valued at $500 million by 2014.
What they got wrong
Rabbit-ear antennas will be more important than cable and satellite
The consortium of providers [of Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS)] trying to establish a satellite alternative could be a major threat to cable companies. So far, the upstarts look strong. [Digital Satellite Systems] has become the fastest-selling new consumer electronics product in history. And that's at about $700, plus installation... Projected winner: makers of rabbit-ear antennas, because viewers with either system need one to get local channels.
On June 12, 2009, television stations broadcasted their programming 'over-the-air' via analog broadcasting signals for the last time in the United States. Digital broadcast television replaced analog broadcasting, making the rabbit-ear antenna obsolete. Almost 2.8 million homes in the US were not prepared for the transition, which required them to have a digital tv tuner.
And satellite replacing cable? Nah. In a 2014 study that polled 2,300 US adults, 77% said they watched television via cable or satellite. 55% preferred cable, while 23% opted for satellite. Meanwhile, 62% of people ages 18 to 36 prefer streaming their television over the internet.
People will order fast food using their remotes in the 2000s
FSN [Time Warner's Full Service Network] expects to include such services as ShopperVision, wherein viewers could rotate the image of a cereal box, read its 'Nutritional Facts,' and order it for delivery… And in light of what it would cost to bring this level of computer power into homes, few observers expect mass use of such services before the end of the decade.
Time Warner tested FSN in Orlando Florida from 1994 to 1997. Users in the program's 4,000 households could press a button on their remote control to order pizza from Pizza Hut (whoa). A 1994 New York Times article called the Orlando system, "undoubtedly the most futuristic network introduced so far," but the system cost $1000 and never went mainstream.
Here's a description of the service from the same Times article:
"Viewers will turn on their television sets to see a rotating carousel on the screen that will allow them to select and watch specific movies at any time of day, shop in an 'electronic mall' and play what promise to be grippingly realistic video games.
Entering the mall, viewers will pass by graphical representations of storefronts and they will be able to view video displays of products from Spiegel, Eddie Bauer, Crate and Barrel and other merchants. A printer next to each television will be able to deliver tickets, discount coupons and printed information."
In 1995, media was on the brink of democracy. Camcorders allowed dads everywhere to make 'home movies' cheaply, and families crowded around televisions to (for the first time) watch themselves move around and do things from an a viewpoint that was not their own. Television no longer implied passivity, and the promise of 'interactive television' was worth saving up for.
But 'interactive television,' and most other anticipated 'futuristic' t.v. advancements never really happened in television... because they happened on the internet. And in some ways, the luxury of choice that we so longed for in the 1990s has, in a sense, come and gone. Choice has been replaced by algorithmically determined recommendations. After an initial click on Hulu or Netflix, the site will provide a constant stream of recommended programing, one episode after another, without requiring the user to ever choose anything.
It's hard to say, in 2015, what the future of television looks like. We know that worldwide, we are consuming media more than ever before and also that we might be running out of internet. But we don't dare make any speculative claims that in 20 years will be picked apart by someone half my age. Overall, TV Guide did pretty well. Good job, TV Guide.