The marketing director from OpenTV Inc. had already spent two-and-a-half days demonstrating interactive TV from her perch in the CableNet pavilion at the Western Show.
She easily extolled the merits of the digital set-top box on which the shows were running. So I was surprised when I took the remote control away from her on the last morning of the show and asked her how many buttons were on the device.
"Seventeen," she said emphatically. At that moment, a pal walked past the OpenTV podium.
I flashed the remote control her way and quickly asked, "How many keys on this?"
"Forty," responded the ITV-savvy passerby.
In truth, there were 45 keys on the remote control — a daunting array for most viewers, but a lineup that is (allegedly) needed to navigate the growing roster of on-screen interactions.
This hand-held interface is simply too off-putting for most "viewsers."
To further complicate the interface dilemma, the scene on the OpenTV demo screen was a Discovery Channel dinosaur show that had been "interactivated" with informational overlays. At this specific moment, the text was obliterating an especially fascinating computer-graphics display about the daily life of dinosaurs.
A few days earlier, I had seen an extended segment of the Discovery program, along with dozens of other ITV shows during an American Film Institute Enhanced TV Workshop symposium. Still more ITV programs were screened among the Bandies award nominees that week.
Too many of these shows rely on overlays or other text intrusions that complicate the viewing experience. The OpenTV staffer in Anaheim echoed the standard reply to criticism about the text: Viewsers can choose when and whether to turn it on or off.
Yet that's one of the reasons that interactive TV continues to encounter such widespread resistance. The frequent reports that cable executives don't like ITV — or that they don't expect it to attract eyeballs — stem, in part, from the interface barriers they encounter during demonstrations.
The hand-to-eye coordination alone can challenge even the most devout interactive devotee — especially on those mega-key remotes. The color-coded or specially shaped buttons (red, blue, yellow, star, circle, diamond, etc.), which are sometimes linked to on-screen prompts, have little consistency across programs or platforms.
No wonder novices get lost as they try to keep up with complex keypad and distracting screen.
Of course, today's linear TV is acclimating us to the fragmented screen-and-text assault. Pioneered by Bloomberg Television — with its seven fields of video, charts, stock quotations and news — the TV screen has already become a visual cacophony, if there is such a thing.
Cable News Network's Headline News seems to hold the current record, with 12 separate fields, including "zipper" lines for finance, terrorism reports and news, along with the talking head and various network logos and IDs.
CNBC, Fox News Channel and even local newscasts (with traffic and weather fields) add to the clutter. Some viewers don't know where to look, but at least they don't have to select or respond on these linear shows.
The interactive equation requires — or at least encourages — viewer response. It also expects viewsers to be able to find their way around the palm-held and on-screen options.
Even something as simple as video-on-demand requires search capabilities, which reinforces the value of Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc.'s navigation and display patents throughout this brave new landscape.
Indeed, in their efforts to circumnavigate the Gemstar restraints, some developers are creating complicated routines that burden the interactive experience, rather than enhance it.
At both at the Bandies and the AFI workshop, there was considerable attention paid to the "two-screen experience" — the current synch-TV process that allows viewsers to watch a linear TV show and conduct interactivity through a Web site on a computer in the same room.
ITV is intended to overcome that bifurcated interim solution by putting the entire process on one screen — in fact, that's the overarching goal of the digital set-top experience. Yet much of this early stage interactivity is drawn from the worst of the Web: a text-heavy approach that doesn't fully acknowledge the visual value of TV.
Nearly two decades ago, interactive media pioneers invariably included a Dennis the Menace
comic strip in their slide shows. In the comic panel, the pugnacious lad is watching a TV set that is laden with verbiage, and he says, "I hate television when it writes things at you."
The power of digital and interactive media is that it can move you beyond words. A few of the best AFI examples use animated graphics or visual messages that operate behind or beyond the TV show itself. Interactivity is not merely plopped on top of the video.
In some cases, the shows use the digital power of personal video recording to push enhancements into the set-top box for later interactive perusal. Elsewhere, interactivity is a link to added features that can be used after linear viewing.
Programmers fear that such hyperlinks take viewers away from the linear program and will destroy the stickiness of network formats. Yet the simple channel-up and channel-down buttons on the least complex remote control already do that.
I started counting the number of buttons on remote controls when the hefty Full Service Network device had a "mere" 37. Key creep continues to annoy viewers who don't know what they're supposed to do with those extra 20 or 30 buttons they never touch.
Worse yet, pushing the wrong button could not only trigger an unwanted pay-per-view (or video-on-demand) purchase: it could bring up one of those dreaded text overlays that cover over the best scene in the show.
And that's a truly user-surly intrusion.