Building Virtual Communities to Enhance the Digital Interactive Television Viewing Experience

Television is regarded as a mass medium (the most powerful of mass media) in which a broadcaster transmits a program that is passively absorbed by individual users, whose behavior was assumed to be limited to either watching attentively or paying intermittent attention while doing other tasks.

However, this situation has changed "radically" with the introduction of the Internet, which has caused individuals to become more technically literate, more critical of information sources, and more interactive. There are currently some inroads into transforming television into a more interactive medium (the author uses the acronym "IDTV" for interactive digital television), which enables the viewers to participate and engage with the broadcaster and other viewers. There are meanwhile the development of technologies that enable the broadcaster to personalize the programming to the individual user, rather than providing a single signal to the masses.

The two media (internet and television) are not entirely converging. There remain significant differences in the situations, locations, and purposes that lead the user to select one over the other, and there remain significant difference in their capabilities (the distance from the screen, the simplicity of the remote control, etc.)

As with other technologies, one of the most influential factors in the evolution was a shift from focusing on the producer (who develops programming) to the user (who consumes it at his discretion), as competition within the medium (the plethora of channels) led to the recognition that building audience could only be accomplished by catering to the needs and desires of the users. In that sense, interactivity is a response on the part of content providers (and to some degree, service providers and device manufacturers) to leverage the consumers desire for television to be a more interactive and social experience.

With this in mind, the aim of this article is to review current developments and discuss future trends in interactive television, while examining the potential value to the viewer.

(EN: I'm not entirely sold on the premise that the majority wants or expects television to become interactive. There has been some early experimentation in this regard, and while I would agree that some are acting in accordance with what they perceive to be consumer demand, it also seems like a random and desperate attempt to use gadgetry to defend against an encroaching medium that provides an interactive alternative where none previously existed. Said another way, interactive television seems very experimental and faddish, and I'm not convinced it's what the consume actually wants. I'll attempt to read with an awareness of that bias.)


The author explains a bit about the "digital" nature of television, which has to do with the encoding and transmission of the signal. The technical details seem incidental, though it stands to note that the method of delivery remains largely the same: information may be transmitted via airwaves, cable, or satellite, though "airwaves" have also been expanded to include terrestrial signals transmitted via WAN and the mobile network.

A critical difference required to make the medium interactive is that the user must have a method for transmitting data back to the sender, which requires either a wired connection (cable or phone lines) or a wireless connection such as a mobile phone signal. Additional detail is provided, but this also seems incidental.

It's also worth noting that another factor in interactivity is the structure of the programming. Some kinds of programming (movies) require attentive focus and do not provide the user with "down time" to think and react. Other types of programming (sports) involves short bursts of activity with long pauses in between, providing an appropriate opportunity for users to interact.

(EN: My sense is that this may be a quality issue. Broadcasters are particularly bad at providing anything of interest in the "down time" between plays in a sporting event, so users lose interest and interacts with other people to pass the time until something interesting happens. Likewise, people seem to talk during a movie when the program has become dull and fails to retain their interest. The fact that the content fails to hold the user's attention is not the "nature" of the content, but of the producer who does such a poor job in designing the content that it creates lulls during which time the attention of the viewer is lost, and the viewer has given up on the program, at least temporarily, and seeks something else to focus upon.)

The author provides a list of ways in which programming has been used in an interactive fashion:

(EN: Not to carp on it, but I still have the sense that most of these examples are not "interactive" but instead are giving the user more interesting content to pay attention to when the main programming is uninteresting, in hopes that it will keep them engaged until the main program recaptures their interest.)

The author also discusses the potential for "t-commerce" applications that enable the user to make purchases by using their remote controls, whether through shopping channels (which already exist, such that the remote is simply replacing the telephone as an ordering mechanism) or through impulse buying (no example provided, but I imagine a show in which the user can click on an item that appears on the set and have the opportunity to purchase it via a pop-up or panel).

The same potential exists in advertising, enabling an advertiser to collect information from the user rather than merely pushing information down to them, and aggregating this information to customize the advertisements presented to a given viewer.

(EN: These are a bit more intriguing, and a bit more in line with "interactivity," though they do involve having the user take a break from watching the program to engage in a different activity, then resume the program. While this can be done today, the risk that the user will disengage from the program is less if they can use the same device to perform the alternate activity.)


Aside of interactions with the program or broadcaster, some technologies are focused on enabling users to interact with one another, much in the way that individuals who are watching the same program in the same physical location (a family in their den, a group of friends at a sports bar) will interact with one another while watching the program.

The value of social television to the programmer or broadcaster is increasing viewer loyalty by making the activity of watching a program a social experience, such that the interaction with other viewers is a value that will encourage more frequent and more lengthy engagement.

Conceptually, this is roughly the same as individuals who are watching the same program, at the same time, while simultaneously interacting with one another on a chat room or bulletin board via a computer or handheld device. However, "social TV" systems attempt to present the conversation on the same device (the television screen) and would like to be the provider of the medium for interaction (they "own" the chat room and can record and monitor users' remarks).

No such device exists yet, but the author indicates that they are under development and exist as lab prototypes or beta versions with limited audiences (he later provides some specific examples, so this can be accepted as a valid claim.)

Developers face a number of usability challenges, such as ensuring the social content is usable (large enough to read or loud enough to hear) without overwhelming the program and that the devices and controls are both usable and accessible. Ensuring that there is ample participation to engage users, yet no so much that communication among the audience remains feasible, is another challenge, as is moderation to control users whose behavior is a nuisance rather than an enhancement.

A handful of examples are provided, from simple "text" chat to video, and even a system in which the audience members are depicted as silhouettes against the screen. The author also provides an example of an application that provides "video chat" that uses cameras to place viewers on a screen, which may go beyond social interaction about a program to a form of interaction in which the viewers become performers in the program itself, interacting with one another.


Naturally, any technology that facilitates communication among individuals is subject to be considered a virtual community, in which a group of individuals who regularly interact form a kind of "unit" that supports and reinforces the interaction of its members, who likely belong to one or more sub-groups of people that they do not necessarily know in "real" life.

The author describes criteria that can be used to determine where interaction among individuals can be considered to constitute a community. Fundamentally, it's a group of people who interact regularly over a sustained period of time in a specific "space."

As with virtual communities in other media, it seems reasonable that the communities that form in the interactive television space will have common characteristics and shared interests, and that the interaction among them will have both social and functional benefits to the participants.


The author has mentioned a number of the functional issues facing developers of interactive television: creating a usable device with reasonable capabilities that delivers a compelling experience.

There is also the matter of user adoption. An example is given that Americans consider their computer to be an "entertainment" device (and would be more likely to accept certain "computer": features when migrated to television) whereas Europeans regard computers as tools.

The complexity of the market may also be a challenge to adoption, as "television" includes device manufacturers and retailers, those who develop programming, those who manage stations and networks, and the companies that provide residential service.

In recent years, there has been a significant increase in the volume of content (from three networks to hundreds of cable channels) that caters to very specific demographic audiences and topics of interest. As such, television is becoming less of a "family" experience and more of an individual one. The author remarks that this may have a negative social consequence (people fracture into interest groups rather than joining a group of dissimilar individuals), but this is a societal issue of the present state rather than a predicted effect of future technology, though enabling people to join communities of like-minded individuals via a virtual connection rather than connecting with a more diverse group out of physical convenience may exacerbate the "problem"

There is also a conflict of social TV with other technologies that enable users to time-shift their viewing habits (digital video recorders that allow playback at a convenient time), in that the viewers of a specific program are no longer forced to watch it at the same time (hence are less likely to interact at that specific time).

Likewise, both time-shifting technology and social technology is perceived as a threat to the business model of content providers: if viewers "skip" the advertising in a recorded program, or ignore it in favor of social interaction with other viewers, then advertising loses its impact, hence its value, hence the willingness of advertisers to pay.

The attempt to increase the value of advertising to advertisers by better targeting ads, meanwhile, faces stiff resistance by consumer protection advocates because the ability to target a specific market requires the network to be able to collect information that would identify its audience on a more granular level (which raises privacy concerns), and the concept of "targeting" draws accusations of unfair discrimination (information about certain products is "withheld" from certain viewers) and tailoring a message to a specific audience is seen in some instances as being exploitive.


The establishment of social TV will bring about an increase in this medium of user-created content, similar to the way that blogs have increased user-created content on the Web, and with the same potential impacts: a significant amount of new information that is of questionable accuracy and, in some instances, of dubious intent

Likewise, it's likely that the advertising model may shift from communications from seller to buyer and more to "social marketing," in which consumer-to-consumer advocacy carries greater authority and credibility than seller messaging - though its likely that sellers will attempt to influence the frequency and content of users' remarks to one another about their products.

Using the television as a commerce platform is also likely to amplify the effect of e-commerce on the retail industry, providing yet another competing channel that users may find more attractive and convenient than purchasing through traditional channels (brick-and-mortar stores) and the potential for competition in this specific medium by both traditional companies seeking to defend market share and pure-players which seek to "own" the channel.

There is also the potential for user-generated content to compete for attention with traditional media providers. In the present day, certain blogs are beginning to rival commercial newspapers for their audience, and consumer videos, while still amateurish, are drawing considerable interest (consider the usage statistics for YouTube).

(EN: As before, the author's vision seems entirely credible, but is based on a consideration of potential that is in an experimental phase and has not yet progressed to the point where it can reasonably be considered to be a growing trend.)