Welcome to the world of future media – where interactivity is key

In the last decade television has shifted from being a passive medium to an interactive one. Chris Tangye from the BBC Future Media TV Platforms team discusses how the small screen is changing.

13 million people press the BBC’s Red Button every week. Considering this service exists on old-fashioned technology, kept alive – effectively – by steam and pistons, this is a remarkable statistic.

What it demonstrates is that if you give viewers a simple way to interact with their television set they will use it. As we move inexorably down the path of connected devices or so-called ‘smart’ TVs, we must improve what it means to have a connected televisual experience – to turn television from a one-way medium into a two-way interaction.

Welcome to the world of future media – where interactivity is key.

Interactivity, in the world of television, is not just the relationship between the viewer and their television set, but also about being able to watch programmes across a range of digital devices.

This might be as simple as using the BBC iPlayer or Channel Four’s similar service, 4OD, to allow for continuous viewing of TV shows as people move from one room to another, or from the house to the bus to the office, seamlessly shifting from television to mobile to PC. It could involve a multi-device bookmark tool allowing users to save something for later, whether this is a recipe, a programme, a clip or a news story.

In all instances, the interactive experience that is on offer needs to be complimentary to the programme you are watching. Teams such as the BBC’s Future Media department attempt to find ways that the interactivity on offer is the interactivity the viewer wants. This may include providing extra video clips, galleries, or actor biographies and then encouraging viewers to find their way from one service to another. Broadcasters are also looking to introduce games that can be controlled with your mobile, which will affect the way a TV programme unfolds.

These are early days in the story of interactive television, which is still limited by one great stumbling block: the remote control. While TVs are getting bigger, smarter and sharper, the humble remote is yet to develop into the tool we need if more inspiring and innovative TV applications are to become a reality. One possible direction is that tablet devices may replace remote controls, deploying their intuitive touch screens to control televisions. Utilising the multi-faceted navigational model of a touch screen mobile or tablet makes the idea of developing a TV application that can take advantage of this all the more attractive. Get this right and then the future becomes very interesting indeed.

Interactivity returns control to the viewer. In creating a more direct relationship between TV show and audience, broadcasters will be able to shape and curate accordingly. Viewing programmes will no longer be passive – giving individuals access to, and ownership over, their favourite content. Interactivity via programme companions reverses the traditional passivity associated with television. Just as online social media has been able to advance news reporting, bringing the reporter and the consumer closer together, so too will using improved remote controls or tablets to vote, suggest, direct and curate content change the way we view television forever.

Chris Tangye is a Platform Manager in the BBC Future Media TV Platforms team.

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