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November 20, 2006

Technology and Television

Yesterday's New York Times had a great article on the social implications of interactive television and the various experiments being tested out across the country, written by Lorne Manly.

The story focuses on Gail Smith, a U.S. computer teacher who has lived in Guam for the past 15 years who returned to a world of digital video recorders and a great shift in the television landscape, the type of differences that has a profound impact on the lives of what some describe as "a nation of videots," others somewhat less cynically.

The point is that Americans love their television, and the technology is an enabler, not an end, for most people. Look back at Joshua Green's presentation from Futures of Entertainment this past weekend about the differences between the iPod and the Zune primarily being that of a relationship of software as opposed to a relationship to a piece of technology that acts as a communication or content-enabling tool.

While some early adopters are the exception, most people enjoy what they can do with technology, how they can interact with art and entertainment and people, not particularly in the television itself.

The story describes Smith's participation as one of 160,000 Time Warner subscribers in what it calls "souped-up interactivity," a series of cable programming options that give increased control over television content to the user. Among the facets of this product described by Manly is a high degree of news selectivity or extra programming from The Weather Channel.

The story goes on to describe the interactive television content through DirecTV for sports viewing, and new initiatives for sports news when viewers want it through ESPN's iZone and Dish Network, among other products.

However, the story is clear to establish that television interactivity remains in the experimental phase. Manly writes, "Still, there are plenty of hurdles to clear before these new offerings become the norm. Some are technological. Some are habitual: for example, can multitasking viewers handle yet another task? And there's the question of whether customers even want these newfangled options. Television may never have been just a boob tube, but it's unclear just how smart people really want it to be."

Part of what Manly is pointing out is my emphasis from earlier in the piece as well--people do not want technology or interactivity for interactivity's sake. They only want to use those options that directly impact their behavior. Anything else is just noise. It is sort of like all the possible products available to the Internet user from Web 2.0. One should sign up with Technorati and Digg and Flickr and create a social network and and on and on and on. For most people aside from early adopters, taking on these new technologies becomes purely pragmatic, jumping into Web 2.0 only when the need arises. People don't care about what's available--they care about solving their needs when those needs pop up.

Manly's story also briefly traces a few anecdotes as to the history of interactive television, including write-in and call-in campaigns. And, of course, reality television provides a vibrant example of interactive television, as does VOD and pay-per-view, in an extremely limited idea of interactivity. (See WWE's Cyber Sunday for a double dose of interactivity, a wrestling PPV that allows viewers to vote on the matches). Some would say that the very act of channel flipping demonstrates a profound interactivity with television in creasing one's own line-up, aside from the DVR or VCR. Then, there is the interactivity of active engagement with complex or fascinating television programs.

The question is how interactive television can go from being a gimmick to a story enhancer and the limits that most viewers would want place on the degree to interactivity when it comes to the autonomy of authors. In other words, in fictional programming, most people prefer that the authors still retain some degree of autonomy. The wisdom of the crowds may often be that, while they want their voice heard, they also enjoy and bolster the idea of being told a story at the same time. Having the ability to interact doesn't necessarily mean turning to a communally written piece of entertainment that does not reward and expect individual textual mastery. Such a limited conception of interactivity relegates it to marketing gimmicks and reality TV voting only and does not acknowledge or reward the vast number of ways that viewers want to communicate with creators. When it comes to fictional fare, interaction should not be equated with "choose-your-own-adventure.

Thanks to Lynn Liccardo for sending this story along.


Nice post, Sam. I too blogged about this article, focusing on the most notable form of "interactive TV" absent from the article - videogames.

Jason, thanks for linking me to your piece. Good point about videogames, by the way.

Posted by: Sam Ford | November 24, 2006 11:38 AM
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