The Interactive Producers’ Workshop offered the opportunity to explore the current state of play in interactive television programming, drawing upon the experience of some successful examples.

Brian Seth Hurst introduced an Interactive Producers’ Workshop entitled ‘Demystifying Interactive Television’. As one of the organisers of the interactive Emmy awards, he noted that although there was an increased interest in interactive television among programme makers, it tends to encompass a variety of interpretations.

From full-service 24/7 services, electronic programme guides and video on demand services through enhanced television programming, to broadband computer and mobile services, essentially it could be defined as interactive programming that is anchored in television, offering a new creative palette for producers.

Rosemary Danon, formerly of Ascent Media, described the production process for an example project. Interactive television in America has predominantly developed from a two-screen experience encompassing broadcast television and the web, largely as a result of the fragmentation of the television infrastructure and the relative maturity of online services. The Walking with Dinosaurs production undertaken with Discovery was originally intended as a two-screen production on television and the web, but was re-implemented as a single screen proposition for the OpenTV platform deployed on the US Media cable system in Half Moon Bay in California. Interestingly, the BBC subsequently developed an interactive application for the sequel Walking with Beasts, also a co-production between the BBC and Discovery. This was deployed on satellite, terrestrial and cable in the UK and employed similar features, with the addition of multiple video streams.

Philip Jay of the BBC took the opportunity to identify the essential characteristics of an interactive television proposition, based upon the corporation’s considerable experience in the field. These could be summed up as events, choice, participation, reward and simplicity.

  • Events, particularly sporting events, have been a major attraction, while not necessarily needing a large linear audience to achieve high levels of appreciation.
  • Choice is an essential element, providing additional material to enhance the experience.
  • Participation encourages viewer involvement, building a relationship with the audience.
  • Reward is about providing a return on the user’s investment, preferably by affecting the content or outcome of the programme.
  • Simplicity is key, with simple, easily appreciated propositions often working best.

These elements should be introduced by clear calls to action from trusted presenters, as viewers appear to be less influenced by on screen prompts, perhaps devalued by some broadcasters through overuse.

Test the Nation provides a case study that encapsulates many of these essential characteristics. As an example of an integrated interactive proposition, this highly successful show began as an IQ quiz, but has gone on to test emotional intelligence and general knowledge. A clear candidate for interactivity, the application required tight synchronisation with the live show, achieved by pre-recording segments of question blocks. The application avoids using the return path as result of capacity issues and the unavailability of a modem in most terrestrial receivers. Instead, user scores are calculated in the set-top box. Over 1.1 million satellite viewers participated in the first programme, and research indicate that the audience felt that they were communicating directly with the BBC.

Dan Campbell of MTV UK is charged with driving revenue-generating opportunities for the music channel. Building on the success of a previous ad break tennis game designed to discourage channel changing during commercials, the company has created the four-eyed figure of Seymour to feature in simple games that run in an overlay application that sits in front of the broadcast stream. Employing a deliberately retro design reminiscent of an early video game, the level of sophistication is limited by the comparatively crude capabilities of the set top box. With each session costing 75 pence, there is an incentive to keep watching across commercial breaks. This is reinforced by events sent to the application that offer extra points for watching during the break. As well as providing a revenue stream, the premium rate drop calls provide a mechanism for measuring audience interaction, a significant benefit given the inadequacy of panel metering for niche audiences.

Dale Herigstad of agency Schematic described two projects produced with CBS for the WebTV platform: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Survivor Africa. He emphasised that it was essential to understand the format of the show in order to identify how it can be enhanced by interactivity. The methodology he described reflected the web-based implementation. Following an initial analysis and design phase, main templates are created and the persistent elements are built. Then, for each episode there is a cycle of reviewing the material, creating visual assets, delivering the final elements and then creating temporal triggers inserted in the vertical blacking interval of the master tape. For Dale, as a veteran television designer, the emphasis was on creating a televisual aesthetic, bringing together the two screens of the television programme and associated web content in a single split-screen multimedia presentation. Dale also presented a visualisation of how this might look were it not for some of the current technical limitations inherent in most receivers. This vision piece featured smooth animation, fades and overlays, a far cry from what can currently be achieved in most set-top boxes, but already possible with more sophisticated devices such as the X-Box.

John Canning of Microsoft presented an experimental application of the Windows XP Media Centre, which has a user interface designed to be at the heart of a home entertainment system. Working with Rick Mandler at ABC, this pilot project again employed web-based presentation with off-air audio and video, combining a two-screen experience into a composite presentation. Using HTML, Flash and XML data, the presentation was synchronised at the broadcast head-end using ZeTools and standard web technologies, with no requirement for in-band broadcast triggers. This form of augmented programming offers the opportunity to create a branded experience to enhance the linear television material. The use of a personal computer platform removes any dependency on particular set-top boxes and moves the emphasis to the content provider rather than the broadcaster or platform operator. Needless to say this presupposes that people will be watching television through such integrated entertainment systems in significant numbers.

The session demonstrated the variety of approaches to applying interactivity to television, from two-screen services, tightly integrated audience participation, through games overlays, to composite split screen presentations. Many technical constraints remain, but successful propositions are increasingly driven by the format and the content rather than the technology.