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Netflix ‘Black Mirror’ Stunt Reflects Well on Interactive TV’s Future

When Netflix first began experimenting last year with non-linear storytelling in some of its children’s shows, it barely registered as more than a footnote to everything else going on at the streaming service. But with a Bloomberg report Monday suggesting this style of content will be showcased in a series of specials beginning with an episode of “Black Mirror” in December, maybe it’s time to revise our impression of a technology suddenly flirting with sleeper status.

That notion might seem like lunacy to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the obscure history of interactive TV; to deem it even a marginal effort within the entertainment business going back decades is putting it charitably. The prospect of consumers navigating in video form the kind of branching narratives fans of “Choose Your Own Adventure” books once enjoyed may be as fantastical as many of the supernatural realms that relic of ’80s-era kid lit explored.

But perhaps what kept this kind of storytelling from jumping from text to screen was technical constraints that would seem to be falling by the wayside. The infrastructure of streaming allows for this interactivity the way traditional one-way tech like broadcast or multichannel technology couldn’t make possible. Add the fact that most viewers have mobile screens in their hands that allow for multi-platform coordination, and it’s possible consumers are really only just beginning to understand how the digital age is going to expand the ways stories can be told.

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Who’s to say interactive TV won’t eventually grow into The Next Big Thing, the way reality TV elbowed aside scripted sitcoms and dramas to make room for itself in primetime in the 1990s? It’s not like anyone saw just how big that genre would become way back when PBS tried its seminal effort back in 1973 with “The American Family.”  When breakthroughs like MTV’s “The Real World” emerged, only then did it become clear how the media landscape was being reconfigured.

While Netflix has always fancied itself representing the bleeding edge of entertainment, the reality is nothing it offers is materially different than what’s available from its competitors. The advances the brand has made in streaming and binge-viewing once burnished its pioneer bona fides, but the content on the service is virtually indistinguishable in form from what’s been on TV for decades.

Diving into interactive TV would change that in a big way, which is probably why Netflix is even bothering with this kind of content. Some one-off experiments like “Black Mirror” won’t make you look at Netflix any differently overnight. But if the company’s vaunted data capabilities start telling execs there that these experiments are working, that could put Netflix behind interactive TV with more substantial investment. Can you think of a service with greater ability to elevate a once commercially unviable genre?

What could make interactive TV even more of an emerging trend that bears watching is that Netflix is just the most prominent example of something that seems to be currently gathering steam in a number of different quarters. A cottage industry of companies has sprung up in recent years devoted to video interactivity. HBO and Steven Soderbergh even collaborated on a long-form series effort, “Mosaic,” that boasted an interactive app, though it hardly amounted to a hit.

For its latest slate of shows, Facebook has been throwing around the “I” word as of late too as its Watch platform aims to blend community-building with entertainment. But this is a different kind of interactivity in the form of quizzes and polls that could also bear watching.

Maybe the audience passivity understood to be part and parcel of any video experience is not as foundational as long presumed.

Yes, in the multibillion-dollar scheme of Netflix’s content expenditures, the investment here is tantamount to a pebble on a planet. But that Netflix is even bothering to try something in such an arcane area of entertainment is noteworthy, and it’s ability to singlehandedly put interactive TV on the map can’t be questioned.

To look at what Netflix is doing here in a vacuum and declare interactive TV the Next Big Thing would be foolish; there is little indication at present that this innovative kind of content has any kind of momentum in the marketplace. That alone is justification enough for any skeptic to wave this off as negligible.

But sometimes there’s value in looking at even a minor data point like this and at least keeping early tabs on it because what may seem a mere snowflake today could begin the kind of downhill run that turns it into a boulder in the not-so-distant future. Given the deserved attention many media companies big and small are beginning to pay virtual reality and augmented reality, you could ask whether interactive TV is overdue for similar treatment.

Should we see more investment here from more entities besides Netflix? Choose the path ahead wisely.

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