Interactive TV Must Keep Its Roots

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Few technological innovations in the history of television broadcasting have held as much promise as interactive television. The ability for a producer to conduct product transactions through the television set in real time as the program airs is a dream come true. The viewing experience becomes a purchasing experience with the press of a few buttons on the remote.

The challenge of working within such a powerful medium is to avoid the temptation of over-exploiting it and alienating viewers.

Interactive television consists primarily of the encoding of data into the broadcast signal of a television show in such a way that a modern set-top box can display the graphics and text on the television screen. Viewers can then use their remote controls to navigate through the interactive on-screen elements, such as clicking on an item to purchase, playing along with a game show or getting additional information related to a news broadcast.

The temptation is to prompt the viewer at every opportunity with offers from commercials, television shows and promos. The reality is that after a short time of watching television with a barrage of prompts, pitches, and invitations, viewers quickly tire of having to click their remotes replying. The end result is a harried, overworked television customer who is ready to throw these new-fangled set-top boxes out the window.

Since interactive television data can originate from any party along the chain of production and distribution, no one party can insert data into a broadcast signal and be sure that it is not the 10th interactive prompt sent in the last five minutes. Therefore, it is incumbent upon interactive television programmers and service providers to empower viewers to control the interactive environment.

This comes primarily by enabling viewers to set their own preferences for interactive television viewing. Through the interactive television service or through the interactive television program, viewers must be given control over how often their attention is solicited, how those solicitations are displayed, and, ultimately, have a feedback mechanism that receives complaints and comments for the interactive television production staff to review and implement accordingly.

When user preferences are not defined or are not available, the One-Click Rule should be observed. The viewer should always have the option of making the interactive content go away and return to normal viewing mode with one click of the remote. After all, it only takes one click for a viewer to change the channel or turn off the television, so it's in the interest of all parties to make the enabling and disabling of interactive content a one-click process.

With interactive television being such an invasive medium, we, as programmers, must respect that power and behave appropriately as "invited guests." If we use the technology as a crowbar into the home and make a poor first impression, we risk the danger of not being invited back or, even worse, being regulated by the federal government.

Programming is certain to enter a renaissance with the introduction of interactive television technology into US homes. Any room in the house with a TV and a set-top box automatically becomes a potential point of purchase. Let's make sure that as television transforms from a one-way, passive medium to a two-way, interactive one, we respect the power that we are being granted by the invention and deployment of interactive television.

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