Last season, when coaches challenged a referee’s call during ESPN’s “Sunday Night Football” telecasts, viewers were invited to go online and agree or disagree with the judgment. Within those few moments, more than 30,000 people would register an opinion.Although that’s a pittance of the 10 million or so watching at the time, it nonetheless means that tens of thousands of folks are logged onto the Internet while tuning in and that their computer is, as tech geeks like to say, “co-located” with their TV. For years interactivity, or what’s often called “enhanced TV,” has been a Christ-like concept in television, with devout believers convinced that its transfiguring arrival is coming, though none can say precisely when or how. Yet having sat through such demonstrations for a decade or more — where the mantra was, and still seems to be, that widespread interactivity is five to seven years away — I’ve become skeptical that I’ll live to see it. So I dutifully schlepped out to the American Film Institute last week to view their latest Enhanced TV Workshop, wondering if the long-discussed revolution is any closer. Clearly, we are moving toward a day when viewers have more individual choice over an exploding menu of options, including access to the kind of “extras” available in the DVD format, which could help point and perhaps pave the way. Beyond the insatiable demand of a relatively small cadre of tech zealots and cinephiles, however, it’s anyone’s guess how long it will be before what amounts to a critical mass wants to play along, chat along or read along while watching TV — which has historically been and largely remains a passive activity. This isn’t to downplay the gee-whiz nature of what can be accomplished, ranging from allowing viewers to punch up credits on a particular filmmaker or actor to selecting the next commercial that pops on the screen. (Press “1″ for the Toyota 4Runner, say, if you might be in the market for an SUV, and “2″ to see the Camry spot.) Nevertheless, when the AFI info packet contains a card saying, “Someday, we’ll just call it television,” it sort of begs the question as to when that “someday” will get here — thus casting doubt over AFI Enhanced TV Director Marcia Zellers’ claim that the new technology is “no longer an overhyped sensation.” To be fair, plenty of interactivity is already with us. The “enhanced” functions usually involve some sort of super-charged remote that can deliver additional features through the cable box, or a dual-screen approach that augments what you’re seeing on the TV via an Internet connection. The AFI demonstrations included the Washington Redskins’ pre-game show — whose interactive apparatus let fans order up statistics or trivia based on their level of interest — down to an information crawl, a la Headline News, that the viewer could pause or back up. Pretty impressive stuff, with sports being one of the most logical applications of such gadgetry. In another interesting twist, PBS stations are experimenting with interactive elements that would take the pain out of pledge drives, including a venture through KQED/San Francisco freeing viewers to bypass the unseemly pleading once they make a donation. Ante up, and the station will open video-on-demand content with games and extras, as well as a clock counting down until the actual program returns. Eradicating pledge breaks is certainly laudable, though it’s debatable how many blue-haired ladies tuning in for “The Three Tenors on Walkers” are conversant in dual-screen configurations and gigabytes. As a layman among techies, during the presentations I was again struck by how much of the conversation played on a level above the heads of the average consumer — one reason interactivity can’t seem to get out of the starting gate. There was lots of terminology like “modular application,” “linear programs,” “cost-benefit” ratios and “fan avidity,” but too little addressing how to get these gizmos out of the lab and into the living room. In addition, while talk of interactivity has mercifully moved beyond the “click and buy that blouse Jennifer Aniston is wearing on ‘Friends’” stage, it’s still hazy as to how programmers are going to monetize (English translation: make a buck off of) these bonus features — especially if they require producing additional content at any significant expense. Given the advancements witnessed in recent years, from the DVD onslaught to digital video recorders like TiVo, Zellers was right to characterize the next phase of TV, whatever it is, as an evolution as opposed to a revolution. Unfortunately, that doesn’t bridge the gap between leading the public to the technological watering hole and getting them to take a sip. For a demonstration of this conundrum, one need only look at TiVo — a device embraced like a family member by those who have it that, far from taking the country by storm, has made snail-like progress beyond the right cocktail parties in Beverly Hills and Manhattan. Surprisingly, even TiVo’s Web site underlines this dilemma, linking to a Forbes magazine piece in which a proud owner discusses his frustration trying to pitch the device to friends and acquaintances. There are also customer testimonials from folks like Beverly W., who says, “I can’t imagine watching TV the old way. No one should!” Yes, Beverly, TiVo is swell. The problem is that people have been watching “the old way” for half a century, and they’re pretty comfortable with it. So unless models from the “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” can be downloaded directly into the home, vague promises of interactive bliss won’t easily alter their habits. With all due respect to the slide-rule set, then, please wake me when the evolution’s over. Until then, you’ll find me planted on the couch with my feet on the coffee table, interacting with chips and salsa.
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