I Want My ITV!

For years now we have been hearing about the promise of interactive television. Many different models have been tried, and the results have been somewhere between the “novel” QUBE tests in Columbus, OH, in the 1970s and the more mainstream, but limited, MSN TV (formerly WebTV) of today.

Though I would certainly not damn any efforts to get ITV off the ground, I am mindful that the biggest factor in pushing forward sweeping technological change is showing potential users how they benefit personally. As a society, we are historically quite inflexible.

For example, Alexander Graham Bell couldn’t get companies such as Western Union to take any interest in his new telephonic device because it was considered to have “too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” The British response to the telephone was a bit more curt, when Sir William Preece, then chief engineer of the British Post Office, stated “the Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”

With such an inauspicious start, it is a wonder the telephone found its footing. Today, however, we live in a world in which this “useless” invention has become perhaps the most important communications tool to date.

Many people can envision the potential that ITV can offer the world, but is that potential enough to move the needle?

The advent of the Internet has given people a better understanding of interactivity, but many questions remain unanswered.

Do People Really Want ITV?

If you’re like me — a guy who has spent the last dozen years championing the world of interactivity — this may sound like sacrilege, but it is a question I think needs to be addressed before ITV stands a chance of becoming mainstream. The answer really lies in human behavior models — not technology.

For example, I enjoy working in front of the computer. Like many of you, I spend the majority of my day interacting with this bundle of plastic, wires, and things that spin. However, when I have wrung my gray matter for every drop of productivity at the end of the day, I enjoy sitting down and submerging myself in the flow of linear media that doesn’t require my input or even thought.

But, I don’t see this as being an either/or matter. I believe that television, if done right, can provide interactive and passive linear information simultaneously.

Consider where we are today. More than half of American households have Internet access of some type. More than 95 percent of American households have television access. It is only a matter of time before these two technologies coalesce.

But before this can happen, the question of user benefit needs to be seriously addressed.

For starters, making a television show interactive requires a lot more than just adding a link to additional information or giving participants the ability to vote on a question. Though these techniques can certainly be used, the real riches lie in offering users instant access to the information they want.

Consider this familiar scenario: You have about two minutes before you head out the door for the day and want to know what kind of weather to expect. Traditionally, you would use the newspaper. It might be handy, and a quick glance at the masthead might be all it takes to determine whether to take along an umbrella.

As television progressed, networks such as The Weather Channel made it possible to get more in-depth information, and viewers made a tradeoff. In this case, viewers got a greater depth of weather information in exchange for investing a little more time. Though this might often suffice, when you’re on your way out the door you need that information immediately.

Enter the age of the Internet. Now, through sites such as The Weather Channel’s Weather.com, we can quickly get the weather information we need for our geographical location. But how different is this approach from reading the weather summary in the newspaper?

Let’s peek into the ITV crystal ball. You pick up your remote control, turn the TV on, and click on the weather tab. A detailed weather forecast — complete with announcer and weather chart — appears, followed by a summary for the week. Task accomplished, you turn off the TV and head out the door, umbrella in tow.

This same box of the future also allows you to sit down and watch “The West Wing” (any time you want) without asking you to give your opinion on topical discussions, to check out “The West Wing” Web site, or to vote on the best actor nomination. However, should you desire this type of access, it will also be available.

Empowering users/viewers with the ability to get the information or programming they want when they want it is key to making ITV work. From there, it’s only a short drive to the mainstream.

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