The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

December 2001

by Terry Borst

filed 01 December 01 Copyright ©2002 alt.screenwriters

Interactive television (iTV) has been “The Next Big Thing” since sometime in the mid-80s. Indeed, it’d be easy to file iTV next to the Jetson’s foldable car: one of those promises of the future that never comes close to materializing.Since the mid-80s, cable carriers and media companies have spent millions of dollars on iTV experiments, only to see them fizzle. The last time we heard a whole lot about iTV was just before the Internet became a ubiquitous presence in people’s lives. The murmurs of iTV stilled shortly thereafter.

But guess what?

It’s ba-a-a-a-ck.

And after all the hype and disillusion of its previous incarnations, iTV this time out is flying under the radar. And — though it’s a bit scary saying this, given iTV’s dismal history so far — the time for iTV may actually have arrived.

For starters, the bandwidth, the set-top device, and the television may finally all be up to the task. Very slowly, the carrier infrastructure is actually being built out — and the cheapness and the sophistication of the digital hardware add something new to the equation.

This time, iTV sneaks into our home promising little — glad to be just invited in and tolerated. You click on a little “i” icon that pops up in a corner of your screen, and a navigation topbar or sidebar materializes. You want an instant weather report? Click on the “Weather” button. You want a two-minute news hit or sports hit? Click on the “News” or “Sports” button. Would you like to see what the rooms look like at various Vegas casino hotels? You know the drill.

These are known as video-on-demand (VOD) services. Notice that we’re still a long ways from clicking on a button to get Apocalypse Now or Titanic or 9-1/2 Weeks delivered to us in a couple of minutes. Forget about all the copyright and compensation issues: VOD of an entire studio library of full-length movies, instantly streamable, is going to take one fat pipe into each home, and we’re just not there yet. (Yes, “On Demand” services do exist — but only for a very select menu of movies which a cable network is ready to dole out in a given month, and on a pre-determined schedule of every 30 minutes.)

However, if you’d like to get to Leno’s guest list for tonight before Leno does in the monologue, you can do that. If you’d like to view the discography of a Saturday Night Live musical guest on your TV set, you can. If you’d like to buy some SNL or Tonight Show merchandise (a baseball cap, a jacket or T- shirt) while still watching the show … yeah, you can do that … providing you subscribe to something like WebTV or a digital cable or satellite service that has begun to roll out these interactive features.

If you want to click directly on Jennifer Aniston’s sweater in order to buy that sweater style … you can’t. Yet.

Creating a “hot spot” on a television broadcast screen is a trickier piece of business.

Baby steps first.

The interactive features discussed above are all examples of what the nascent iTV industry calls “enhanced TV.” For a while now, enhanced TV has been delivered in a rather clumsy way, via what is called “two-screen interactivity.”

Two-screen interactivity is ad-hoc iTV … when the viewer simultaneously accesses both the TV and the computer. Though you may not know it, plenty of deliberate two-screen interactivity has already been implemented by networks like The History Channel, PBS, The Discovery Channel, MTV and NBC — this having resulted from the accidental and surprising discovery that TV show website usage would spike during broadcasts of shows. While a small segment of an overall audience, these two-screen viewers are highly prized because of their loyalty and passion about shows — and specific content is now released on websites, concurrent with certain shows, to serve this audience segment.

However, two-screen interactivity is merely a bridge to one-screen interactivity: i.e., true iTV. Readers who may have been around for awhile may remember that in the late 70s, early adopter screenwriters would cobble together a home word processing system by connecting a TV set, Atari home computer and electronic typewriter. It wasn’t pretty, but it did work.

Two-screen interactivity is a similar Frankenstein.

The companies developing the applications and content for this new one-screen interactivity are — for the most part — anything but household names. They go by monikers like OpenTV, RespondTV, and WinkTV. The 800-pound gorilla is a little company called MSTV … MicrosoftTV.

Perhaps the most interesting creative iTV application to date is being done by MSTV for CSI. Indeed, CSI proudly proclaims itself the “first prime-time network interactive drama”, for good reason.

When watching a drama show, have you ever wondered how far the bad guys’ hideout was from the good guys’ HQ? In CSI, you no longer have to guess. A sidebar menu choice provides a virtual map of the show’s home city Las Vegas, and pinpoints story locations vital to the episode (the crime scene, the morgue, a key evidence find, and so on).

Some of the best uses of the sidebar occur during key moments of the story. When a Vegas location becomes important, the sidebar will pop up a graphic and some text describing the place (a museum, a casino, a park, etc.). When investigators uncover a clue, the sidebar often provides a close-up of the piece of evidence — even a 360-degree view. If, for example, characters discuss a victim’s bite marks and their perpetrator, the sidebar might display a side-by-side comparison of human teeth and canine teeth.

Many of these evidence close-ups and location graphics are accessible to the viewer later in the story.

Don’t know your magnaBrush from your red creeper? One of the other sidebar choices takes you to the “Crime Lab”, where you can plunge into the arcane details of forensics at the same time that you watch the show.

Now you may think all of these features would make following the show’s story difficult — and perhaps it does, if you weren’t raised on Nintendo and MTV. But a generation of viewers is already quite comfortable with this kind of onscreen multitasking, and finds that it actually enhances the entertainment experience.

If you’re subscribing to DirecTV/Microsoft’s UltimateTV, or WebTV or AOLTV, or Adelphia or Charter or various other cable or satellite carriers, you’ve already got iTV in the home (providing you signed up for the digital receiver and services). Most interactive shows have deals with certain carriers — so while you might get interactive SNL, you won’t get interactive CSI. Yet.

AFI is now operating a year-round “enhanced TV” workshop, pairing together network producers with iTV experts — and this year, episodic shows from Showtime and HBO, along with several PBS documentaries, are developing interactive components to the upcoming broadcasts.

What does this all mean to writers? Not much, at the moment. According to various sources, most (if not all) of the interactive content is being developed and written by the interactive programmers. And granted, most of it’s not the most scintillating stuff — it sure ain’t Paddy Chayefsky, and not meant to be.

Nevertheless, this still seems a little bit like transmitter tower engineers writing Uncle Miltie skits. In fact, professional screenwriters write game show questions, award show patter, documentary narration, news and infotainment segments all the time for traditional television. Why not the same for iTV?

Corporate and venture capital money has largely fled the dot-bombs, particularly any that had to do with entertainment.

But the money hasn’t disappeared — it’s just being redirected. TV, everybody gets. iTV is TV. And if screenwriters take the “screen” part of their title seriously, it may be worth checking out The Next Big Thing … before it’s, you know, Big.

Written by tborst

December 1, 2001 at 10:40 pm

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