Interactive TV – Because We Can

I dug this old article out after re-reading my commentary on my Interactive Narrative thesis that I posted a while ago. This one dates back to April 1999; I recall it being published somewhere or other, possibly in New Media Age magazine, I think. Anyway, it was a time when the web was coming to a TV set near you and the magical ‘red button’ was going to wake us from our stupor, drag us out of couch potato mode and make us lean forward and, you know, interact with the gogglebox. Er, riiiiight….

Interactive TV seems to be the latest hot topic.

There has been much talk of – indeed considerable investment in – video on demand and home shopping. We have been told that an advertising revolution is about to happen, that viewers will be able to click an on-screen icon to find out more information. People will be able to delve into the backgrounds of their favourite characters of their favourite soap operas, all from the comfort of their armchairs.

Not impressed. Three words: suspension of disbelief. Am I, as a viewer, really going to want to interrupt my viewing to ‘interact’? Am I going to be willing to interrupt my passive viewing in order to actively make a choice? If I do, what does that say about the quality of the narrative I am watching – about its ability to entice, engage me, capture my imagination, suspend my disbelief?

Commercial breaks are already an annoying interruption (perhaps no coincidence that ITV’s News at Ten has made way for ‘uninterrupted’ film presentations) – a time for going to the kitchen to make a cup of tea or nipping to the loo. Will we really stick around to interact with them? Perhaps, until the novelty wears off (one only has to look at the declining click-rate on banner ads for a parallel). Then what? Just the same adverts with added interactivity which no-one uses. Oops, that was rather expensive.

The problem is that, for the time being at least, we seem to be conceiving of interactive TV as the addition of interactivity – and limited interactivity at that – to an existing, conventional, linear medium.

Undoubtedly there are many reasons why this is the way to go for now. Firstly, consumers – many of whom still haven’t got to grips with VCRs – can hardly be expected to accept interactivity overnight. They need to be introduced to it gradually. Secondly, producing specifically non-linear, interactive content will be expensive, whereas we already have vast archives of linear programming which could be re-purposed at a much smaller cost and risk. But I can’t help feeling that we’re rushing to develop the medium simply because we can, before we’ve really worked out why we should, or what we – and our customers – want to get from it.

The fact remains that a ‘language’ of interactive narrative – and any programme, be it a documentary, film, drama, investigative report or even the news, is ultimately narrative – simply does not exist. Expert programme makers often do not understand interactivity and non-linearity; the newly-emerging breed of ‘interaction designers’ often do not understand broadcast and cinematic production values. And between the two? Nothing. Yet.

Numerous attempts have been made to create ‘interactive narrative’ and in my opinion none have yet truly succeeded. The balance between passive viewing (as in the film or novel) and active participation (as in a game) has yet to be struck.

It is my hope that one day, this balance will be found, a language will be developed and we will begin to see good quality programmes made specifically for an interactive medium. Until then, I fear interactive television will ultimately be a huge disappointment.

About Jon

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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