Television headlines have been dominated lately by talk of interactivity — questions of when it’s coming, what form it will take and who will profit from it.News flash: Interactivity is already here, has been here, and will continue to be here. The only question is whether it will balloon and grow in the high-tech ways people are banking on. The answer, at least from this vantage point, would appear to be probably not. Of course, the interactivity that everyone is so excited about involves a steady stream of informational exchange, going in both directions, between viewers and programmers. The mind boggles with futuristic images of viewers interacting with people on screen, who can immediately respond to messages sent by the viewer. Still, all sorts of action, if not interaction, already surrounds the medium, and the question remains whether the people who don’t already avail themselves of these opportunities have any great hankering to begin doing so. All those late night infomercials rely on people watching Tony Robbins, Dave Del Dotto or whatever Mike Levy is pitching this week, picking up their phones and saying, “Yes, I want to belong.” Only$ 19.95 for a product that would cost hundreds elsewhere. All those psychic and lonely-guy hotlines rely on someone watching Sabrina or Jade or whoever it is help some little old lady locate her car keys, and then call in and say, “Me, too.” Only $ 3.95 for the first minute, 18 and older only please. Local stations (TV and radio) and networks have come to rely on those non-scientific polls, the 900 numbers where viewers can dial either 555-9933 or 555-9934 to express their pro or con view on the verdict in the Rodney King case , or how Mayor Bradley will be judged historically, or whether Julia should have married Lyle. Only 95 cents per call, of course, with the proceeds going to some unnamed charity, like FAMADASO (Find a Musician a Disproportionately Attractive Spouse Organization). Yes, buyers of merchandise from QVC or other home-shopping channels are also communicating with their television, in the language that powers the entire industry: cash (or Visa or MasterCard, allow four to six weeks for delivery please). That said, ask yourself the following questions: Have I ever ordered something after watching an infomercial for it? Have I ever called a woman named Bambi or Rhonda to talk “live” or listen in on their conversation? Did I call “Martin” to say which ending I wanted to see? Have I ever responded to a viewer poll and called a 900 number? Do I have a set of Ginzu knives at home? Odds are, based on your Daily Variety ready profile income bracket and educational range, the answer is “No” on all counts. Moreover, you probably don’t know a lot of people who use their television in that fashion — unless a lot of your friends are postal workers or employed by the DMV. In short, it would seem that there is a group of people prone to such material and they support the entire industry. They must exist, since these infomercials and polls keep running, though thus far I’ll be damned if I can find anyone who admits to engaging in the practice. THE OTHER POINT, seemingly lost in the hubbub surrounding interactivity, is whether we really need all sorts of high-tech gadgetry to make it easier to interact with the television. The truth is, the telephone remains an extremely convenient tool, and there would seem to be little additional merit in being able to communicate through the TV (i.e., some sort of fiber-optic wire), rather than simply picking up the phone and making your selection. As it is, home “play-along” versions of shows like “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” have existed for years without making an enormous ripple in the game/toy market, while hit games like Monopoly and Scrabble have never enjoyed much success on TV and Trivial Pursuit is only now making it to cable in a highly touted interactive version. The much-discussed 500-channel environment, if anything, would seem to augur more viewer passivity than interactivity. Those who already enjoy calling in to order products or register opinions will have different (not better, not easier, just different) means of doing so: Instead of just pushing buttons on their telephone, they can fiddle with their personal command box, sort of like the one that kid used to carry around in the cartoon to summon Gigantor. THOSE WHO SIMPLY WANT TO BE ENTERTAINED by their TV, meanwhile, will be able to surf aimlessly from channel to channel or order from a vast menu of pay-per-view movies, based on the assumption that most people don’t really enjoy the hassle of going to the video store, renting a cassette and then having to find time to return it. Ultimately, the industry is changing in ways no one can clearly predict, and those gambling on interactivity are probably as well advised as anyone else trying to ascertain how computers, fiber optics and other technology will converge to create the new television (in form, if not content) of the 21st century. Still, those anticipating a sudden rush toward interactivity may want to consider what any journalist would ask regarding the future of these fabulous innovations — namely, once we’ve mastered the “how” and “when” of interactive television, does anybody really have a handle on the “who,””what” and, most importantly, “why”?
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