Interactive TV: Giant Leap or Goofy Gimmick?

At the risk of sounding anachronistic, allow me to say at the outset that I don’t want to interact with my television. I just want to watch it, and most of the time I don’t even want to do that.

I understand it’s the new, new thing in the e-commerce world and that everybody and his brother will be doing it in the fast approaching future. With voice technology constantly improving, and with new “entertainment appliances” proliferating, people will soon be walking through their homes carrying on running conversations with their TVs.

But it won’t be progress; we as a species will be devolving back toward the time when picking fleas off each other was considered the best of home entertainment.

The idea doesn’t even have the creepy futuristic fascination of HAL the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” With a voice that could be at once soothing and unnerving, HAL was an intelligent, if devious, conversationalist.

In the case of interactive TV, it’s more a question of what’s the point? Instead of improving the content, the “content providers” are simply finding more ways to throw the same old junk at us. What’s worse, they’re asking us to be part of it.

Ready-Made Audience

Although some in the industry predict the number of interactive TV subscribers will swell to 25 million in the next five years, melding television and the Internet on a large, commercially viable scale has failed thus far.

That’s surprising, because there is a ready-made audience for a product that could successfully merge our two most popular forms of home entertainment. Ideas are flying fast and loose, but nobody has come up with the right one, yet.

For example, CBS and Microsoft just signed a deal that will combine the network’s programming with Microsoft technology, enabling “simultaneous interactive services.”

That means viewers will be able to do things like vote in polls and view biographies of a show’s cast. And — here’s the turning point in the decline of Western civilization — viewers will even be able to chat with the actors.

Too Many Polls

Don’t we have enough polls? Every time you turn around, there’s another poll biting you on the leg, telling you how everybody else thinks and feels. If you don’t like the results of one poll, chances are you can find several others that reach completely different conclusions — all of them swearing by their plus or minus accuracy rates.

Polls are an increasingly irritating way of establishing cultural legitimacy — thinly cloaked modifying tools for conformist behavior.

As for viewing the biographies of cast members, who really wants to know what Suzanne Somers was doing before she played Chrissy on “Three’s Company?” (Hint: white T-bird.)

For the life of me, I can’t think of anybody on a television show I would care to talk to in the privacy of my own home. Aunt Bea, maybe, if I wanted a recipe for blueberry pie.

‘Survivor’ Won’t Survive

Television industry insiders point to the success of “reality-based” shows like “Survivor” and “Big Brother” as proof that interactive TV will become more and more popular, since the programming was “supplemented” by online interaction.

“Survivor” was a contrived, ridiculous show, filled with the sort of people I try to avoid in real life, and I predict the format will grow old fast. It was only popular because it was different; people are sick and tired of the same lame sitcom formulas. The winning “survivor” was a corporate trainer. Doesn’t that say it all?

Simplify It

Interactive television has a future, but so far, its developers are going about it the wrong way. Simplification is what’s needed, not more complexity.

For example, here’s what a recent press release said about SCM Microsystems and Microsoft “revolutionizing” home entertainment: “With its conditional access signal decryption capabilities, St@r Bay is designed to be the vital receiver gateway module that allows PC-architected home entertainment systems to access a wealth of premium TV and other entertainment services…”

What?

CinemaNow Has the Right Idea

A site called CinemaNow is on a better track, offering a selection of free movies including the 1970s horror classics, “Shiver of the Vampire,” “Devil’s Nightmare” and “Reincarnation of Isabel.”

CinemaNow is one of the few sites offering feature-length movies. What interactive TV needs is a site that offers an extensive choice of quality, first-run and recent movies, along with old classics.

I’d pay through the nose for a system that would allow me to sit in my recliner and punch up the original “Cape Fear” on my TV set. So would legions of others like me. That’s the only sort of interaction most of the TV viewing public needs or wants. I just took a poll that proves it.

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