Skip to main content

Will ITV Change America's Viewing Habits?

Not a day goes by when I don't hear someone announce that interactivity and convergence technologies will totally change the way people watch TV.

This, it seems, is a done deal. There is little dissent expressed by anyone in the know, despite the fear and tension that the impending revolution might inspire in those who expect to manage it.

Nevertheless, it is announced with a kind of childlike giddiness, like when some lucky kid tells a friend about the great stuff he's pretty sure he's getting for Christmas.

But what is it about television that has been so extraordinarily appealing for over half a century?

It's easy to watch. It asks nothing of us. It lets us "escape." TV is an art form like no other, providing an aesthetic of the anesthetic. You can watch it — and understand and enjoy it — even when you're half asleep.

Work, relationships, conversations and family obligations require our input. We often turn to television because it does not. In reference to the medium's alluring passivity, its most dedicated patrons are generally known as "couch potatoes."

In short, the most fundamental reason why Americans have loved television so much for so long is that it is not interactive.

It's true that the first forays into interactive technology have met with great success and have already significantly altered viewing behavior. The remote control, for example — when linked with a good cable or satellite package — provides a magic wand of interactivity, allowing viewers to effortlessly piece together a collage of programming guided by one's individual interest and attention span. Though channel surfing is now standard operating procedure for most viewers, its impact has not been as striking as we might have expected.

The degree of household penetration of the remote should have rendered old program scheduling strategies — lead-ins, lead-outs, and hammocks — obsolete. But it hasn't.

The most popular regular TV event is still NBC's Thursday night lineup. Millions watch it through the entire evening, just like they did in the old days. Maybe this is because at any given time, half the remotes in the nation are missing in action or stuffed between the cushions of a piece of furniture other than the one upon which the viewer happens to be sitting.

Or maybe it's because part of television's appeal is going with the carefully designed flow of an evening of network programming. Millions of people — on Thursday night at least — seem to be rejecting what few interactive opportunities they have in favor of an old-fashioned passive experience.

The VCR, which allows viewers to fit programming to their own schedules or to purchase and rent their own selections, is now part of the basic television equation. Still, many people don't take full advantage of the interactive potential of the VCR.

Many never learn to set the clock, much less the timer. Those who do manage to record programming off the air often fail to label the tapes and are unable to find what they want when and if they want it.

The newer interactive options we've seen so far are hardly the stuff of an industry revolution. Yet while "Enhanced TV" offerings and the like are still pretty lame, there are clearly exciting opportunities for some really cool things just around the corner.

The coolest promise is one of stories with multiple points of view. Viewers will have the option to branch off in a variety of narrative directions or opportunities to play a TV show like a video game.

Because budgetary problems and storytelling constraints are hard enough to deal with in traditional, linear TV shows, those complex productions that take full advantage of interactive TV's technological capabilities will probably be limited to a small handful of big and special events. That's the case with IMAX movie productions.

It's hard to imagine any network will have the resources or the talent to deliver 22 hours of state-of-the-art, primetime interactive programs per week, as it currently can with the old-fashioned stuff.

Rather than new types of programming, the real convergence revolution will probably come in the arena of distribution, storage, and retrieval. Systems that allow sampling from huge catalogs of movies, TV shows, sporting events and other programming for viewing or downloading on demand seem inevitable, as do links with advertisers and retailers.

A necessary supplement to all this will, of course, be "smart" devices that make recording and playback more efficient. But widespread acceptance of these devices will depend upon the ease with which they can be activated and operated. Earlier high-tech advances like VCR Plus, designed to take time-shifting to the next level, proved too much for most consumers.

Will all of this new technology really change the way America watches television? Although we watch some of our favorite programs with rapt attention, most of our TV viewing is much more casual.

We turn it on when we're drowsy and passive; we leave the room and engage in other activities. Often the television is simply used as background noise to which we occasionally attend. Many of the hours in which we say we're "watching" television, we're not watching at all, but simply living our domestic lives with the TV on.

Today's programming accommodates the dozing, the interruptions, the lack of concentration, but the ITV of tomorrow would not be nearly as tolerant of our inattentiveness.

Perhaps ITV will create a new, more engaged audience. Still, there are many hours of the day that we need an entertainment form that allows us to sleep, work, or leave the room.

More and more Americans spend their workday interacting with a screen. It might be worth speculating a little as to whether they'll want to do more of the same in their leisure hours. We might also remember that the theater has had the capability of interactivity for centuries, but except for a few experiments, it doesn't use it much. The most successful plays are still those that let the audience sit passively in the dark while someone else does the work of amusing them.

Sure, there's a market for ITV. The widespread success of the Internet has proven that people will spend leisure time concentrating on a specific task. But television viewing is a unique and special activity deeply ingrained in American behavior and any new technology that's applied to it would be wise to serve its passive nature.

Robert Thompson holds the Trustee Professorship in Media and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, where he also serves as founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television.