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Add Value, Not Gimmicks, With eTV

I recently read that financial analysts were looking to the television set to provide the next big interactive boom. They shout the virtues of TV-commerce — a pizza, movie tickets or shoes at the touch of your TV remote control — and are looking to invest in the enablers of interactive television. But television is not the Internet, and it comes with a set of expectations all its own. It’s instant on, it’s basically a passive medium, it doesn’t crash and it hasn’t required too much from the viewer.

Certainly the Internet has prepared us for interactive television in terms of input and output, but what will it take for television to prompt interaction? For the medium to succeed, we have to remember television’s legacy and understand that anything added to it will still be TV. Those additions must create a technologically seamless user experience. The content must be relevant. The interface cannot overwhelm the viewer/user. Perhaps most importantly, creators of interactive television must remember that interactivity establishes a relationship.

All the rules of relationships apply — attraction, respect, communication (listening as well as speaking) and a desire for a deeper, more connected and intimate experience. I guess that from this perspective, interactive television can look like a fairly sexy proposition.

Like it or not, interactive television is here to stay. Moreover, because it gives cable operators, satellite operators and distributors of programming the opportunity to increase customer loyalty and revenue by providing subscribers and viewers with a whole range of new features, from chat and e-mail to commerce, we are likely to see a faster adoption than originally anticipated.

Combine that with an entire business springing up to provide programmers with inexpensive interactive television tools and templates — and with the launch of interactive television by America Online — and you have removed a few barriers.

Like television, interactive television can be used for wonderful programming and experiences and still have the potential to become that great interactive wasteland. So, given some experience in creating interactive television, knowledge of the television audience, the lessons we have learned from the Internet and a healthy dose of common sense, what experiences can we bring the folks sitting in front of the dumb — but rapidly becoming smart — box? And speaking of smart, we cannot afford to underestimate viewers, especially since they have the choice and the control in the interactive television environment.

The areas that combine to make an interactive television experience are content, navigation and design. If you don’t select relevant content, it may not matter how you establish navigation or how good the design is. When creating original interactive programming, you will have the opportunity to build in interactivity from the beginning. Think holistically. When creating extensions of existing programming, think of enhancing, rather than obstructing or interrupting.

Interactive Content. Just because we now have the ability to make all television content interactive doesn’t mean we should. What lends itself to this new creative palette? I have broken down the opportunity into four main categories. We are choosing relevant content that viewers can relate to and with which they will have a relationship.

Fan-based. In any fan situation, the fan wants to get closer to the star, to the action. Fan-based interactivity added to a television program allows for an up close and personal approach as well as the building of community or fandom.

So, as the live, pay-per-view ‘N Sync concert is broadcast, my 13-year-old daughter can find out more about what her favorite bandmate, Justin, has been up to, choose a camera view from which she will see only him, chat with her best friend about what a “hottie” he is, send in a song request (if you hear a shriek, you know Justin has accepted Alexandra’s suggestion, “This one’s for you Alexandra”), and, heaven help me, she may even have the chance to bid on the sweaty T-shirt he wears that night.

Sports, entertainment and the coming wave of reality-based programs are all ripe for interaction. Would “Survivor” viewers have voted Stacey off the island even after she chowed down on the bugs? Or perhaps you’d like to make book on who has the best chance of giving Regis “the final answer” that makes him a millionaire.

Game-based. Continuing on the game theme, imagine playing along on air against top-seeded viewers for your own chance to be a millionaire. The Game Show Network is already 24/7 interactive. When programs such as “Jeopardy” or “Wheel of Fortune” are not interactive, you can still play a wide range of games over your television while watching other game shows. Two-Way TV, London, and Ladbrokes, Gibraltar, recently announced a partnership for gaming over television in the states and countries where this type of gambling is legal. Place your bets.

Information-based. Here, we bring on demand and enhanced program information to news, sports and weather, allowing for customized information and deeper stories. We can enhance documentary programming through text, animation and additional footage. (How does a tornado suck up a cow and throw it at Helen Hunt?) Or, how about showing me more of what is “Behind the Music” with factoids and photos? This category also includes educational programming, do-it-yourself shows, cooking — and, of course, shopping.

Programming-based. How do you want your television? This type of interactivity gives you greater control over your viewing, or, as the personal digital video recorder sellers are fond of saying, “TV on your schedule.”

TiVo, Alviso, CA, and Replay and WebTV — both of Mountain View, CA offer digital video recording integrated with an electronic program guide. The EPG is truly the prime ground for training people to be interactive. Viewer-based command and control are forcing networks, program brands and advertisers to rethink the way to reach the viewer. In an ever-increasing media universe of television channels and virtual or interactive channels, and of Internet over television, viewers will need help navigating.

Navigation. Information and features should be organized in a simple hierarchy that requires a minimal number of clicks while allowing for deeper levels of experience. The demographic of the viewer is very important. For example, a 15- to 20-year-old may want a “power experience” filled with options and choices. A 50-year-old will have an entirely different set of expectations.

Establish an overarching, cross-platform navigational paradigm and optimize your content for each medium. If you have a Web site and interactive television applications, organize information in the same way on both platforms so users won’t have to learn a different navigation structure for each platform.

Don’t change the map. Once you have established a template for navigation, stick to it. If you have a series, don’t change the navigation every week.

Create your navigation to extend the learning of the viewer by adding more and richer features.

Design. Again, noting that interactive television is television, there are a few things to remember when designing the user experience and “experience” is the operative word here:

o Ease of use. It should not be about the technology. Therefore, make it seamless and uncomplicated. The interface should be organic and intuitive. When you create it, think of how we watch television, how our eyes move across the screen.

o The look, feel and tone of the interfaces should match the brand, look, tone and feel of the show. Remember, you are enhancing the viewing experience, not obstructing it.

o The interactivity should be a logical or complementary extension of what is going on in the program and should provide a richer level of participation.

o Again, remember the demographic for which you are designing. Different ages interact in different ways and can handle different amounts of screen information.

o Don’t cram the screen.

o Make it fun. If you have fun creating it, chances are the viewer will have fun using it. Even though you may be dealing with a serious subject matter, you still can make the interactive elements fun and entertaining to use.

All the advice aside, I really believe, as in any new medium, creative people will find a way to use the best of what the technology has to offer to tell stories and engage the audience. They always have. In spite of what I have said, you can also feel free to chuck all that and take a few risks.

You may discover an entirely new way to make the medium work for you and your audience. After all, if you are a storyteller, then you already know how to move an audience and make a connection. Now you will have tools to take that a few steps further. If you are an advertiser, you will have the opportunity to use the medium to make a deeper connection with the consumer and extend your brand, and to expand the loyalty of your customers.

Someday, we will take interactive television for granted just as we do with the telephone. You don’t realize how many onboard computers are in your car; you just get in and turn the key. The generation behind us already takes interactivity for granted.

The tools are upon us to create something great. And now, as the technology once again has arrived before the content, I have no doubt that soon the creative community will want new and better ways to reach out, and they will ask the technologists, “Hey! Can you make it do this?”

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