New age television ... endless possibilities for the viewer.
THE Indian viewer became an incentive freak some 10 years ago when contests first began to blossom on television programmes. By 1994, Zee TV was claiming that contests on its channel were attracting eight lakh entries a week. And remember "Surabhi" on Doordarshan in its early days, with the toothsome Renuka Shahane? In 1993 when a postal strike threatened to affect the flow of entries for the contest on their show, they feared their ratings would be affected.
The principle established back then, that contests promote interactivity and thereby boost viewership, has held steady. Only postcards have given way to rather more contemporary technology, and the numbers today are in millions not lakhs. Last week, Aaj Tak and Headlines Today were claiming that their "Sharp" contest initiated on Aaj Tak had generated more than 1.32 million SMSs in four days.
The Internet and SMS between them are creating new trends in the media and entertainment business. Nobody allows you to remain a couch potato or a mouse potato any more: you have to respond to polls, contests, and invitations to what is being said on the programme on air. The idea is to engage and involve viewers in the news, and to stimulate public debate. And presumably keep the viewer sufficiently engaged till the end of the show so that he or she does not channel hop.
Then there is the broader notion of involvement both with the channel and public icons, implicit in inviting viewers to send messages to Amitabh Bachchan on his birthday or the Indian cricket team playing in a tournament. Television populism, which the Aaj Tak CEO describes as "airing the sentiment of the people". CNN has a format for viewer views which is less token, and which allows a complete view to be expressed on an issue such as the invasion of Iraq by people watching around the world.
More and more, current affairs programmes are throwing in an interactive element. "Q&A" on CNN has long invited e-mail and telephone responses to the discussion being aired. Aaj Tak, which has a tiresome habit of claiming that it is making history every time someone on it sneezes, did so again when it introduced interactivity last January on "Seedhi Baat", Prabhu Chawla's on-air inquisition. The new NDTV 24x7 and its Hindi sibling, NDTV India, have their own shows where audience response is built in, "India Bole", and the "X Factor", where you can respond even as the programme is on air. "Make the connection", they like to say on the new channel's promos even as they give you a number to SMS. "Talk to us."
Compared to international innovations in interactivity, what is offered in India is still pretty basic. For instance, Click Online invites viewers to send in a video or audio clip for their feedback slot. It tells you which media format to use, how big your file should be to be easily e-mailable, how fast you should speak into the microphone, and how much light you should use for a good recording. On the programme then, you not only see and hear the view expressed, but also the person speaking.
Sports telecasting is the area where interactivity can offer the most potential. Here too what we saw on SET MAX when it built an interactive game called "Predikta" during the International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions cricket trophy was elementary stuff compared to what may soon be possible. Here is a scenario for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens which was sketched five years ago in a paper presented at the annual conference of the Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Association. When you read it now, it does not seem so outlandishly futuristic.
A woman in Singapore using a teleputer logs in with an assigned code number, selects the Olympics channel, then selects which game she wants to watch. She can choose from live or recorded events, select the angle she wants to see the performance from, and ask for the performance history of a particular athlete. Later she does some online shopping for Olympics souvenirs and leaves a message for the medal winners on the viewer response line.
Even back in 1997 when this paper was written, a clunkier version of such interactivity was already available on the Internet. It is perfectly possible that a smooth experience of the kind described above will indeed be in place for the 2004 Olympics. In the United States and the United Kingdom Interactive TV (iTV) is spreading fast, delivered via cable TV systems, with the U.K. far ahead in terms of percentage of viewing households with interactivity. Cable or broadband access will make all the difference to TV on demand, both here and in those countries.
Meanwhile, Microsoft, AOL and other major players in entertainment technology are reported to be building television set-top box technology that enables TV viewers to become interactive in several different ways. For example, AOL is selling a set-top box that allows instant messaging and online chat while watching TV. People are already watching TV with a cordless keyboard in hand, many more will begin to do so.
And you can also insert interactivity into TV programmes by using unused lines in the TV spectrum. A BBC story describes lots of little companies with names like RealNetworks and Liberate Technologies which are working on these add on effects. They will enable viewers before long to order ingredients online for a dish featured on a cookery show they are watching, or order the product being advertised on a TV ad, then and there. TV will evolve to become more like the Internet.
The downside? The more you click and interact with this new sort of TV, the more you leave a digital record, and the more susceptible you become to direct overtures from advertisers. If you think there is already too much junk mail coming over the Internet, much more could be on its way.
Eventually the day will come when you will eagerly pay to watch a channel that offers just plain TV. No running ticker at the bottom, no icons indicating interactivity, no voice overs saying call now, no phone numbers flashing on the screen. When it will be a treat to be allowed to be a passive couch potato.
E-mail the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org
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