Dawn Airey on Broadcasting

Interactive technology will revolutionise our TV viewing
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The Independent Online

Interactive television has come a long way since Winky Dink and You, the American children's show of the 1950s where viewers would draw on a piece of transparent plastic mounted directly on to the TV screen.

Interactive television has come a long way since Winky Dink and You, the American children's show of the 1950s where viewers would draw on a piece of transparent plastic mounted directly on to the TV screen.

These days news junkies can choose the story they want to watch and comment on the issues of the day. Sports fans are able to pick their own camera angles and place a bet on the outcome.

The technology has also transformed television advertising. Last month, a simple 20-second commercial for the new album by the Chemical Brothers prompted more than a quarter of a million fans to press the red button to hear snippets of each track. Then 61,000 of them said they would go on to buy the album, a sales conversion rate of 22 per cent when a normal direct-marketing campaign would be lucky to attract a couple of per cent.

Nevertheless, large swathes of the schedules on the mainstream networks remain curiously resistant to the lure of interactivity. Sure, using your remote control to test your IQ, play along with a gameshow or vote to banish contestants from the reality programme du jour is quite nifty, but there's no getting away from the fact that these are little more than pre-existing applications that have been bolted on to existing formats.

That's why I have high hopes for the BBC's recently announced "360-degree commissioning" strategy. For the first time the Corporation will incorporate interactivity into the programme-commissioning process at conception, with mobile, online and interactive TV teams involved right throughout the planning, commissioning and production stages. The result will be three landmark programmes that will have interactivity at their core.

It may just be that as a result of the Beeb's efforts, interactivity finally becomes an integral part of entertainment and documentary programming. The creative possibilities for drama are enormous as well. Could you imagine being able to choose the end of the story or have the option of following the path of an individual character rather than a linear storyline? A Ken-cam or a Deidre-cam on Corrie perhaps. It may sound ambitious and futuristic but it is no more complex than what computer games already do today. It would certainly help to give dramatic programming an even greater depth of content, and engage viewers more actively at a time when they have a choice of 400 other channels to watch.

Of course, there are sound reasons why we've not yet seen an interactive drama, not least because the technology has only just caught up to the demands of dramatic programming. All that is about the change.

Today personal video recorders (such as Sky+ and TiVo) are available in only 600,000 homes and they're capable of recording up to 80 hours of programming. But the home entertainment systems of the future will be ubiquitous, and they will be capable of storing thousands of hours of content, including perhaps every movie ever made as well as perhaps multilayered drama - all available on demand.

How will producers use this storage capacity? And what will be the new programmes that will emerge from it? The glory of television is that neither I, nor anyone else, really has any idea.

What I do know is that there are now opportunities for connecting with the audience in ways hitherto unimagined that will exploit the medium's capabilities in ways we haven't even dreamed of. The creative possibilities are endless. And that's reason enough for me to want to keep watching.

Sky's the limit on happy customers

In the two years since I joined Sky, the reaction the place provokes among usually sane friends and former colleagues in terrestrial TV (such as the usual incumbent of this parish) has never ceased to amaze.

From the tone of some of Greg Dyke's pieces, you'd think we denizens of Osterley were uniquely in favour of making money, while the idea had barely crossed the minds of the other players in the commercial television industry.

Much of this feeling results from ITV's historic public-service broadcasting commitments. But let's get it straight. ITV wasn't committed to public-service broadcasting because they were a cuddlier bunch of guys. They did it because that was a condition of their licence. In return, they received concessions from the government from which they made a very tidy margin. Now, having persuaded the regulator that their public-service commitments are too onerous in an age of 400 channels, they can't ditch them fast enough, and the very genres that historically have contributed to ITV's distinctiveness such as regional and children's output are being swept away in an attempt to boost the bottom line.

Most of my friends in the media have railed for decades against Establishment dominance in other walks of life and are usually the first to champion those companies which have successfully taken on big, established players by being more nimble and customer-focused.

It is because Sky does just that - daily - that I went to work there in the first place.

Dawn Airey is managing director of Sky Networks

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