Interactive television – is it already here?


A nice article in today’s New York Times discusses the growth in interactive technologies for watching television, such as DVRs, enhanced programming, and the like. The article does a good job noting that such innovations encourage viewer activity, while acknowledging that the assumed mode of “couch potato” viewing was never as pervasive or passive as TV-haters made it out to be. But the most interesting issue comes at the end: “And all the maneuvering by the satellite and cable operators could be for naught if people continue to think of computers, not TV sets, as the place to interact with programming,” followed by some insights by Steven Johnson noting that our interactivity is more endemic to computer technology, and thus TV will probably always seem a bit of an imposter in trying to mimic computer functionality. It is crucial to think about technological innovation not only about what features and activities are made possible, but how our assumptions and expectations for particular technologies help shape the uses and adoption of such innovations.

Of course what is left out the article entirely is the most common way that millions of people interact with their television screens: via console gaming boxes like Playstations, XBoxes, and Nintendos. Thus far, the act of game playing and watching TV shows have remained mostly distinct, as most players don’t think of playing a game as “watching TV,” even when it means staring at your TV for hours. But the new generation of consoles are tied into broadband networks and can deliver downloadable media content, web browsing, etc., suggesting that these devices might be the trojan horse bridging the computer/TV gap in ways that previous devices (like WebTV) have failed to do. Tie-in games for TV shows like The Simpsons, 24, The Sopranos, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have been narratively and experientially distinct from the shows themselves, but I imagine it won’t be long until the modes of interaction this article points to for televised sports and weather will be extended into narrative programming through the expansive medium of gaming. So what will we call it – interactive television or serial gaming?

UPDATE: A nice account of this article is also on the Covergence Culture Blog.

One Response to “Interactive television – is it already here?”

  1. Well, Jason, I guess great minds think alike, but you’ve raised some interesting points in relation to gaming. Do you think we’ll enter an age soon where, much like the current battles we’re seeing between cable and telephone companies over what the real difference is, we’ll see the companies that make video game consoles and DVR making the same arguments? Of course, for the viewer, I don’t think the hardware makes as much of a difference compared to what can be done with the machine (at least all aside from the early adopters and those hooked to owning the coolest technology).

    While I agree with Henry’s assessment that we’ll likely never enter a one black box mode of distribution becuase life is just too complicated for that, I also think there’s going to be a lot of reconceptualizing over what keeps one genre distinct from the other when the traditional distinctions are becoming muddied.

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