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How interactive is TV?

As the year turns, interactive TV is not a mass medium yet. Tracy Swedlow isn't surprised. As president of San Francisco interactive television consultancy InterativeTV Today, she has been tracking the less than robust development of interactive television for the American Film Institute. Obviously, AFI has a huge interest in the future of opportunities for content creators in the visual realm.

"Interactive television" means different things to different people. Swedlow defines it largely in terms of "the use of technologies to simultaneously broadcast [the signal] and data to a video screen." She feels that there needs to be some relationship between the broadcast signal and additional functionality or information that is being delivered.

Swedlow doesn't define interactivity in the way some would position it today. "Watching and then going to a PC and e-mailing [Oxygen Media talk-show host] Candice Bergen is not interactive TV,'' she says. "Web applications to support shows are early behaviors that content programmers are exploring, but that is not interactive."

It's not a matter of different platforms for her; it is just that one means of communication does not organically flow from another.

Swedlow is totally correct on that count, as well as in her diagnosis of interactive TV's slow adoption curve, acceptance problems, and what needs to be done to fix them. (She posts, and frequently updates, a white paper about her views on interactive television's opportunities and challenges at

Right now, she sees an adoption-curve red flag in the recent lawsuit that interactive television developer ACTV has filed against Disney. It alleges that Disney is infringing on ACTV's intellectual property with the Enhanced TV online programming it distributes via the Web during broadcasts of ABC's Monday Night Football
and WhoWantsto Be aMillionaire?
and ESPN's Sunday Night Football.
As we have reported, ACTV thinks its patents cover the synchronization of online content with broadcast TV programming, a technology it currently markets under the HyperTV brand name, and that Disney is infringing by producing certain content elements such as graphics, statistics and viewer polls for the football games and quiz show.

To paraphrase Swedlow, when legal uncertainties erupt, people with money to spend for content and enabling technology freak.

Add to that the toboggan ride of technology stocks. She points out that many technology companies that could push the interactive ball forward have suffered a severe slump in market values, and now must cut R & D to cover paychecks. This depressed technology market doesn't exactly fill venture capitalists, who could kick-start interactive content provider companies, with confidence.

"Because of the downturn in the economy, we're in a real moment of disconnect," says Swedlow, with a combination of frankness and wisdom. "Some companies are aggressively developing funding mechanisms to seek that [interactive] content out, but it is definitely a cautious time."

In cautious economic and legal times, it's only natural to be risk-averse, and look for interactive content applications that provide the promise of quick revenue. Enter what Swedlow and others call T-commerce," or the selling of goods through an interactive television application. So, online, you can buy a T-shirt with a program's logo on it. Swedlow's not impressed.

Instead, she says, "In terms of compelling content, there has to be original programming, which encourages a community of people with a common interest to talk with each other."

Right now, "It is not clear how commerce will mix with the programming," she says. "Also, what are the complex rules? How will the technology work? What will the rights be? What about royalty structures for T-commerce, or for overlapping original applications? When a program comes over your TV set, your TV set manufacturer doesn't own that content, but what will happen when that content comes through an AOLTV box?"

Russell Shaw's column about Internet and interactive issues appears regularly. He can be reached at