If you watch leather-lunged TV megachef Emeril Lagasse, you've probably heard him lament the limitations of his medium: "Oooh! I can't wait till we get Smell-o-Vision so you can smell this at home!"
Well, bad news, Em. Despite the old Bugs Bunny cartoon (in which a futuristic headline proclaims SMELL-O-VISION REPLACES TELEVISION!), scented TV is still unlikely to be in our parlors 20 years from now. (Emeril, alas, very likely will.) The reason is less technical than economic. Smell can theoretically be digitized, and there are researchers working to do exactly that. But Smell-o-Vision was tried years ago--with varying degrees of technical sophistication--in movie theaters. Now it's gone. Shockingly, audiences have failed to protest.
"Visionaries," says TV analyst Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research, "think about what is possible without thinking about what will actually make good business." Say you were descrying the future TV of 2000, 20 years ago. You might have predicted a remarkable, crisp, high-tech TV display. You might have called it, say, "HDTV." And you would have been right. Except HDTV is probably not in your living room. As with the De Lorean car, the mere existence of a $5,000 or $10,000 TV set isn't sufficient to persuade consumers to go into hock to get a sharper look at Dennis Franz's butt. Instead, people have stuck with pretty much the same box they had in 1980, with less wood paneling but more channels and more whatsits plugged in.
It is in those whatsits that the future of TV lies. Cable and telecommunications companies (among them TIME's parent, Time Warner) are racing to wire homes with high-speed data connections, similar to today's cable in capacity except--a big except--that they allow two-way communication and, above all (this being America), commerce. Meanwhile, our more adventurous neighbors are starting to install digital TV "set-top" peripherals, from WebTV to ReplayTV and TiVo, that allow them to surf the Web onscreen, interact with programming, store TV shows on hard discs or even--horrifying to broadcasters--skip all those commercials.
Things get really interesting when fast connections and smart set-top devices mate, turning your TV into what is essentially a cheap computer (or your computer into a pricey TV). In the past, broadcasting always involved watching what the networks offered when they offered it. In the future, you'll tell your TV to capture your favorites--49ers games, Happy Days reruns--whenever and wherever they're on, to watch on your own schedule. Or maybe your TV will tell you what to watch. Using the same sort of software Amazon uses to custom-recommend books, your TV will offer a "channel" for you and each family member. This could be disastrous for big networks: you may no more know, or care, whether your favorite show is on NBC or A&E than you know whether your favorite movie was made by Fox or Paramount. The nets could lose brand recognition--and big money.
When we can bypass the networks and easily zap ads, traditional commercials will become less and less profitable. This means you'll have to pay for TV with either money or information. Pay-per-view--for movies and sports--will become more common, as will subscriptions. (Blockbuster has already made a deal with TiVo to beam movies to set-top boxes.) When your TV becomes a massive video archive, you'll even pay for reruns.