4 1 T'S ALL JOLLY exciting, isn't it?" Thus Michael Palin, striding through the jungle in promotion of BBC Digital, his progress hampered only by a flurry of computer-generated butterflies. 1999 will certainly be remembered as the year of the revolution, but whether it awill be a source of excitement or of irritation or merely boredom is still in doubt. Assuming one has invested in all the available kit, the new set, the cable link, the dish and what-not, exactly what kind of difference will digital TV make to one's life? Well, fora start, there isn't going to be any cash left over to do anything but watch television for a while, so it had better be good. Specialist punters, devoted to endless sport, or woodworking or whatever, will certainly be well served, but what of the general viewer?
Already Channel 5 has demonstrated that there is not enough quality programming to go round, while BBC News 24 has exposed the shortage of competent anchors and technicians, or possibly of the funds to pay them. L!ve TV is, and always was, a joke. Following Mr Palin, machete in hand, through the wilds of another 30-odd channels is, therefore, unlikely to be an edifying experience.
Then there is the whole question of choice, that shibboleth of contemporary politics. Can we dread thought — actually have too much of it? The explosion of competing schedules must surely promise only infinite discord in the average family home, while solitary viewers could easily spend the whole evening working out what they want to watch. Faced with a bewildering range of options, they might well decide they're too tired to bother, and read a book instead. This is why Chinese take-aways offer set menus.
But regardless of the popularity of individual new wavelengths, one thing is for sure; the reputation of television as a medium will suffer. There was time when any fact or locution derived from the box was regarded as Gospel, an irrefutable standard, sufficient to terminate private argument. Doting aunties would predict talented children would "be on television one day", and newsreaders were idolised. No longer. Soon TV companies will be obliged to trawl the ranks of teacher-training dropouts for their recruitment, and public respect for TV will diminish as more members of the public are used to fill more screens. Even now you are more likely to be hauled onto a studio panel than you are to be called for jury service. In the future everyone will be famous, not for fifteen minutes, but to fifteen people.
But there also exists the entertaining possibility that 1999 will be the only year of mass channelling on British television. All it takes is for some small but vital area of the computer network to escape the attention of the millennium bug-doctors, and the whole system could crash into oblivion, with only "Happy New-phut!" as its epitaph. Not with a bang, but a whimper.
It will then be up to the statefunded BBC to spend the next year bolting itself back into something like working order, while all the commercial companies go bustfor you cannot insure against the Big M. By the time the real eve of the millennium comes round at the end of 2000, we might be able to celebrate in front of a flickering black-and-white screen beaming a small studio party live from Crystal Palace. But meanwhile, we will all have realised that the box was not the core of our existence after all, and that we scarcely missed it while it was away. Manufacturers and retailers will have saved a fortune in advertising costs without any loss of sales, and literacy rates will have soared across the land. And best of all, the digital cornucopia will have come and gone, unmarked and unlamented. Alt well. We can always dream.