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TV Tomorrow

Designers of interactive television seem to inhabit a different reality than the people who care about TV.

When i tell people that i teach television, they sometimes boast, “I don’t even own a TV set!” All I can say is that we inhabit different realities.

I read Phillip Swann’s TV dot Com: The Future of Interactive Television with the same sense of looking across a vast cultural divide. Swann, the former publisher of TV Online magazine, thinks interactive television should and will be designed  for channel zappers: “Few viewers today can sit through an entire program without picking up the remote and checking out another channel.”

In Swann’s future, variety and magazine shows will almost entirely displace dramas, and the few remaining series will be shrunk to 30 minutes or less, reflecting dwindling attention spans. VCRs will be “shelved forever” once the hard drives for personal videorecorders “expand to permit consumers to store dozens of hours of programming.” Swann devotes an entire chapter to the silly idea that viewers will want to disrupt the flow of Ally McBeal in order to buy, right then and there, whatever Ally happens to be wearing.

I wish I could dismiss Swann as an eccentric, but similarly bad ideas are circulating in Hollywood too. The future of interactive television is being designed by and for people who don’t care for television. One researcher brags he can compress any show into half its original length. In his perfect world, television might consist of nothing but coming attractions. According to Swann, “People will start watching TV shows the way they read books: a little at a time.” Such plans reflect an impoverished understanding of television viewing and a lack of interest in the medium’s aesthetics.

Historians of the book make distinctions between intensive and extensive readers. In the older manuscript culture, a reader had access to only a few works but read them closely and over years. With the rise of printing, this intensive reading was theoretically displaced by extensive reading: readers read more books and spent less time on each. But intensive reading never totally vanished. Ask around and you’ll probably find someone who rereads Gone with the Wind or The Lord of the Rings every year.

Television enthusiasts have the same desire for intensive engagement. The new media environment encourages some restless viewers to channel-surf. But it also supports prolonged involvement with series. The VCR produced a nation of video collectors. When the full run of The Simpsons spans hundreds of hours, why be satisfied with a technology that can only hold a few dozen episodes? We are more likely to use TiVo-a personal interactive television service that uses a digital recorder-to watch television and use videotape (or some equivalent storage medium) to archive it.

The availability of such digital recorder-based services may partially “liberate” us from the network schedule, yet this does not spell the end of “appointment” television any more than videotape rentals decrease the length of movie lines on opening night. We watch television in part so we can talk about it, and we want to see it when everyone else does so we don’t have the good parts spoiled by other people’s big mouths.

TiVo wisely targets both extensive and intensive viewers. It allows us to pause a live TV broadcast, do something else, and return to watching where we left off. But we can also book “season passes” to favorite series. The technology tracks down episodes wherever the network moves them.

While Swann imagines shorter and shorter series, the history of television drama suggests growing complexity, more elaborate story arcs, more back story. Among the current ratings champs are serialized ensemble dramas like ER, The Practice, and The West Wing-series Swann concedes would not survive in the media environment he describes.

But I believe interactive television could support even more serialization. Imagine a world where reruns could be downloaded, enabling latecomers to catch up on cult serials. Imagine being able to click on the screen and replay scenes from earlier episodes that reveal back story-say, all the scenes from The X-Files dealing with the disappearance  of Mulder’s sister. Imagine annotations by both fans and producers. Imagine a new economics of television that supports many more shows, where a series with a small but committed group of intensive viewers-which couldn’t cover the overhead costs of broadcast TV-could thrive via a download medium. In other words, imagine getting more, not less, from the shows we watch.

Undoubtedly, there will be new media forms that reflect the interests of channel surfers. But don’t assume this represents the only direction for tomorrow’s television. Swann envisions a future marked by diversity of media choices and yet a sameness of viewing styles, an audience eager to buy Ally McBeal’s skirt but not to watch an entire hour-long episode. As I said, we inhabit different realities. 

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