How Interactive Do People Want Their TVs to Get?


There’s a renewed buzz around interactive TV technologies. But like all previous attempts, they’ll be bumping into 50-plus years of glassy passivity.

Two recent ITV developments:

ESPN is pitching three ITV apps to affiliates, to launch in summer 2009, that will provide voting/polling, on-screen stats and (with a tru2way-enabled device) a customized "bottom line" scroll. 

Then, at CES next week, Intel and Yahoo will demo TVs developed by Samsung and Toshiba that run the companies’ "Widget Channel" framework for Internet-fed applications, like delivering local weather, news and sports info. (Comcast is nominally on board with this project, though one suspects the MSO’s ground-floor involvement is defensive, i.e. if the "Widget Channel" actually takes off it would have a head start.)

But how interactive do TV viewers really want to get with their video hearths? From the evidence to date, not very.

Genevieve Bell, an Intel fellow and anthropologist who has studied the way people all over the world watch TV, acknowledges that simplicity is the overriding concern for television viewers. They don’t want yet another remote or set-top. 

For a variety of reasons, "you can’t just take a PC and morph it into a TV," Bell told me when we met earlier this month.

Think about the interactive TV applications that have actually stuck over the last decade. You can count them on one hand: DVRs and interactive program guides, maybe VOD. They’re simple, natural extensions to way the people watch TV. 

Will many people want to dial up fantasy sports stats on their TVs? Or chat with their Facebook friends during the season premiere of Damages? These are functions TVs don’t serve today; personal computers have the lock on these forms of information gathering and communication. For such new ITV apps to take root, they’ll have to win a fight against entrenched behavior by being better.