Hot Topic

Ask the New York Fire Depart ment. Approximately 1,200 people can fit safely into the Imperial Ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel. About half that number attended a panel discussion on interactive television at Jupiter Communications’ recent online advertising forum. That’s enough of a crowd to indicate the subject is getting hot, but no so warm as to worry the hook-and-ladder crowd.

If there was a general consensus, it was that interactive TV was probably a couple of years away from being a big deal in the U.S. However, it is possible—if not probable—that interactive TV will become a larger ad medium than the Internet within five years, perhaps overtaking conventional television in 10.

Why the wait? One limiting factor is technology. It’s not there yet. Interactive advertising on the computer requires a lot of cooperation from the “viewer” and a certain degree of technological sophistication. Plus, the computer crashes anyhow.

Say what you will about the “TV experience,” at least the technology always works, and it has for 50 years. Until the machinery and the message crafting can deliver that sort of goof-proof performance, interactive TV may be largely a cloistered realm peopled mostly by techies.

Interestingly, the technology needs only to be good enough. Beyond a certain point, color faxes, for example, or 200-mile-per-hour cars, extra enhancements are not especially necessary, practical, valuable or even legal. While the technology may continue to advance—as we saw with color, then stereo on broadcast television—the technological threshold for interactive TV may be relatively close at hand.

The interactive-TV pioneers are still in the groping stage. No one is sure what programming elements will be the most compelling for an interactive audience, or which advertising tactic the most persuasive. The best balance of programming vs. pluggery is undetermined. Some of today’s experiments require a two-screen hookup, with a viewer watching a show on TV and playing along on the computer. That seems like a lot of work, and how many people are videoscopically ambi dextrous?

For the rest of us, life divides quite neatly into two kinds of screen-based stuff: sit-back video, typified by today’s television, and sit-forward video, as seen on the computer. The route to success in sit-back video is clear: push attractive programming at the viewer. With sit forward, the user is more in command. But it requires a greater investment in time, money, training and attention.

There are far more couch potatoes out there than geeks—and even geeks need to vegetate occasionally—so it seems probable that the sensibilities of present-day TV—not computing—will predominate. But so far, the stars of the interactive-TV universe are not from the old-media world, at least in the U.S.

Interactive TV is more developed in Europe than here, and there are important lessons to be learned from the Europeans’ experience. Maybe they can repay us for developing and exporting the Internet by showing us the new ways to use TV.