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The future of interactive TV

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If you've given a thought to the concept of 'interactive television' chances are that you've had visions of ordering videos at the touch of a button and responding to a TV show by participating in a running commentary via an electronic bulletin board. But could it also become something entirely different? This was one of the questions that consumed panelists at the recent Virtual Culture symposium in New York City, co-sponsored by ECHO and the Whitney Museum.

For Nicholas Butterworth of SonicNet, interactive TV meant Mystery Melrose Theater, a BBS that provides Melrose Place fans with a virtual 'camp' ground for occasionally radical, sometimes obscene and often banal, comments. With one eye trained on the computer screen and another on Sydney's smarmy smile, fans flame the show and each other week after week. Sci-Fi Channel producer Sharleen Smith pointed to a similar experiment between her channel and ECHO on The Prisoner, except that the viewers' real-time comments actually scroll across the bottom of the TV screen during airings of the show. According to symposium host Madeleine Altmann, YORB: An Electronic Neighborhood takes interactivity one step further. For a half hour each week on a Manhattan public access channel, YORB allows four viewers at a time to navigate a 3-D environment, as well as play games and choose videos using their touch tone phones.

Marc Weiss, founder and co-executive producer of the excellent PBS documentary series P.O.V., offered a more politicized notion of interactivity. For one thing, he noted the distinction between real-time chat and asynchronous discussion: real-time chat involves a lot of one-upsmanship with witty flames that squelch meaningful dialogue, while asynchronous discussions like Usenet newsgroups, bulletin boards, and mailing lists allow for more thoughtful consideration of a topic. Weiss also offered the reminder that not all TV viewers have access to advanced computer technology. P.O.V. provides several ways for viewers, wired or not, to comment on programs, including email, fax, video letters, bulletin boards, mailing lists and the P.O.V. Web site. The program is currently gearing up for November's broadcast of Leona's Sister Gerri, a documentary about how one woman's tragic death became a symbol for the abortion rights movement. The following week, P.O.V. will air a show comprised completely of viewer responses to the film.

Meanwhile, corporate America equates interactivity with consumption: Lest you have doubts, check out Digital Equipment Corporation's press release for video on demand. But at this embryonic state in its development it's clear that the parameters of electronic interactivity are still being defined. Maybe viewer-response driven content, real-time chat, Usenet group discussions, and various collaborative narratives sprouting all over the Net are fauna in a forest of interactivity the Suits won't want to visit.