Tuesday, May 10, 2005

AFTRS Interactive T.V. Seminar - Thoughts

The lights were on! Then off! Then on again! At times I thought I was going to have an epileptic fit.

Welcome to the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts and the AFTRS' seminar on Producing Interactive Television. Matt and I arrived well before time (if only to get out of the offfice) in anticipation of listening to industry experts talk about a subject that we will be working on in the near future. With ABC2 up and running and with continued support for Broadband and expansion into mobile platforms, it makes sense to see what others have already done and how they got there.
Gary Hayes
BBCi Producer

In particular, we were interested in listening to Gary Hayes, former Senior Producer for BBC Interactive. Gary has been responsible for;
  • The BBC's first broadcast interactive TV service, "Digital Text" (an enhanced version of teletext.")
  • The BBC's first live internet documentary, "The Musical Nomad."
  • The BBC's first Broadband TV non-linear TV Documentary, "X-Creatures."
  • Enhanced TV programs such as "Top of the Pops," "BBC Navigator," and "Travel Show."
If you have an interest in Interactive Television, I suggest visiting his site. It's full of interesting information on the subject.

Gary's lecture ran through the history of Interactive TV in the BBC ranging back to early pilot videos from the mid 90's, back when all this stuff was more proposal than practical. Well, between the videos and the lecture the lights were flicking on and off like a strobe. A small issue really.

Of particular interest was realising just how far behind Australia is when it comes to this stuff, particularly in regards to the ubiquity of the technology. At the moment the only thing we have close in audience penetration to the U.S. market's Tivo is Foxtel's new iQ PDR. That's great for the few that actually use Foxtel pay TV, and the even fewer that will fork out the extra money to get an iQ, but the rest of us seem stuck in a 1950's TV methodology.

The problem is, it seems that the most popular interactivity enhancement, other than multi-channel sports, was the karaoke function for Top Of The Pops. Hardly inspiring stuff, but the punters obviously loved crooning along to the Spice Girls.

Gary answers some questions after the seminar

It was definitely interesting to see the development of this stuff, particularly the early pilots with hosts standing on psychedelic backgrounds pointing to a range of beveled butons on the screen saying "Press this button to vote for your favourite song!" Still, I'm not sure that's what I'd signed up for.

Even the recent stuff, such as the quite excellently conceived "X-creatures," while a lot of fun to watch and play with, wasn't quite what I had in mind for interactive TV. Maybe my expectations were in the wrong place.

It doesn't help that when it comes to this stuff the BBC is working with a budget that dwarfs anything we could reasonably conceive of, not to mention a national population of 150 million with a wide integration of digital interactive set top boxes. Things here in Australian kind of have to take a different bent.

The nice thing that did come out of the whole discussion was the future technologies, including Television over broadband lines like ADSL. Companies like Microsoft and Google have already positioned themselves to hit that market hard through products like the Media Center PC, or Google reinventing its search engine to find and download media clips on demand. As Gary pointed out, this also means that if you put up your home made video, fanfilm or coverage of your three year old's birthday party, everyone on the network becomes a broadcaster as well as a consumer, something that frightens television outlets to no small extent. Unlike the internet in general, TV companies are already finding high quality, high resolution content available for people to download, legally or illegally, from the internet. That brings up all sorts of DRM questions, not to mention where you fit advertisers into the equation. "Within the program itself" seems to be the standard answer.

The Seminar in action!

Next up were Nathan Mayfield and Tracey Robertson from Brisbane based production company "Hoodlum Entertainment." These are the people that brought us Australia's first "Multi-platform" drama, "Fat Cow Motel."

Fat Cow is interesting because it attacks interactivity from a different direction, one that many people consider means it's not really interactive TV (hence the "Multi-platform drama" tag). Instead of letting people play director or writer with the action on screen, several different elements are combined to give a greater sense of presence in the narrative world. This means that people could check out the website and get clues to the ongoing mysteries, listen to "voicemail messages" from the different characters, "intercept" email messages, etc. By doing so over a number of available platforms the audience were able to become fully immersed in the world of "Fat Cow." The Producers even went to the trouble of creating fake video clips that were then played on Rage and news stories that helped create a sense of reality for the drama. My immediate response? "Yeah, that's what Blair Witch did to promote the movie before Sundance." Anyway, when I asked whether they thought they'd get into user-generated narrative interactivity, the answer was a profound No! The basic thought is, and I have to agree with them, that TV production just isn't set up to allow for that sort of interactivity when it comes to drama. Unless you're doing something cheap and simple like SBS' "Going Home" the options for creating open ended dramas just isn't practical. Besides, when you're broadcasting and asking your audience to vote for alternative endings you immediately alienate the percentage of the audience that didn't vote for that outcome.

By this stage, Matt had had enough and took off, leaving me to ponder the intricacies of what's interactive and what's just sending out and receiving SMS messages.

Tracey Robertson and Nathan Mayfield
Hoodlum Entertainment

Answers? Perhaps that style of interactive drama just isn't where it's at. Perhaps we need to be thinking about different delivery methods, such as broadband or TV IP. Maybe interactive drama just doesn't suit a naturally linear product like TV. Maybe for people to really make changes to the ongoing narrative requires a fully immersive environment where actions cause an immediate effect rather than having to wait for it to download. Maybe television doesn't enter into the equation.

Anyway, it was definitely worth the $30 the ABC forked out for me to get along to. I would have been interested to then go on and attend the Interactive Writing Design course being held, except that it runs 5 days and costs $450. I don't think I could quite swing that one too.

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