Doomed To Repeat The History Of Interactive TV
By Mike Masnick, Mon May 02 23:15:00 GMT 2005

Experiments in "interactive TV" have gone on for many years, with many failed results -- as it became clear that the definition of interactive TV was limited by a broadcast mindset. It looks like people pushing mobile TV may simply be repeating the mistakes of the past.


In the early 90s "interactive TV" was a well-hyped concept. Cable providers would add additional features to broadcasts, and those watching TV would be able to buy things or vote on television and the world would be wonderful. Instead, while the various television providers ran trial after trial of interactive TV that failed, the Internet quietly became a huge phenomenon behind their backs. It turns out that people instinctively recognized that broadcast television was mostly a "sit back" experience, where interactivity wasn't nearly as interesting. They wanted to watch TV, not interact with it, for the most part. Besides, buying things and voting on things wasn't really all that "interactive." The core was still the broadcast, and these additional features seemed more like gimmicks. If anything it was barely "enhanced TV" rather than "interactive TV."

The Internet, on the other hand, was a true interactive platform. It let users view what they wanted, when they wanted, and let them create whatever additional contact while communicating with anyone else at the same time. For the most part, it made interactive TV seem somewhat pointless. Only now are changes coming to television that make it actually seem somewhat interactive, and those changes are usually focused on DVR functionality that let users watch whatever TV show they want whenever they want.

At the same time, both the television and mobile industries are trying to figure out how to bring television to mobile phones, despite an uncertain demand for such offerings (highlighted by weak sales of TV-enabled mobile phones in South Korea). While some analysts continue to insist that everyone actually wants to watch sitcoms on their mobile phones, despite little evidence to back that up, at least some are recognizing there needs to be a much better reason to offer video on mobile phones if users are going to buy into the concept.

Ericsson is pushing the idea that mobile TV needs to be interactive for it to really take off -- and there are some obvious reasons why that might appear to make sense. The combination of mobile phones and television has been one missing link to add in some forms of interactivity -- especially the kind that involves voting on various reality TV show contests.

However, most of what Ericsson is saying seems to simply be reliving the past failures of interactive TV. It's promoting the concept of interactive TV as being "buying things" and "voting on things" -- neither of which really do more than add a slight taste of interaction into the process to make the viewer of a broadcast feel somehow included, rather than being an entirely passive participant. However, it's hardly the type of really "interactive" experience that drove the acceptance of the Internet, and it seems unlikely to really drive significant usage to mobile TV either. It isn't designed with the end-user in mind, but with the broadcaster in mind, focusing on how shows can have additional tie-ins (usually designed to earn them some more money).

The interactive nature of the mobile phone is definitely important, and using those features to help make any service more worthwhile is going to be necessary. However, anyone looking to make interactive services on the mobile phone would be smart to review the past failures in interactive TV, before assuming that simply adding mobility will make up for many years of failed interactive TV initiatives.