History is a thing of the past as TV goes interactive

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The Independent Online

History programmes were the surprise success of the TV schedules last year, David Starkey's series on Elizabeth I and Henry VIII proving to be as popular as many soaps. TV channels are now clamouring to repeat this success.

However, the latest attempt to capitalise on the trend, BBC2's Civil War, featuring the animated Tristram Hunt, appears to have crashed and burned, leaving TV reviewers unimpressed. Now the channels are gambling on what the next TV fashion will be.

This year, rather than focusing on a particular genre, such as reality TV, game shows or sport, the channels want to combine the lot. "What I think you will see is an increasing use of hybrid forms," says Mark Rowland, managing director of the production company Mentorn International.

One new show tipped to be hot is You're the Manager, a mix of sport and reality entertainment that starts next month. In the programme, fans of the non-league football team Stevenage Borough FC will pick the players they want to field and will even be able to make substitutions during a match, voting via text messages. The programme is destined to be "big", predicts David Elstein, the man who set up Channel 5. "It's a good use of interactivity and a typical Channel 4 twist on sport," he says.

However, there's light at the end of the tunnel for football widows. "The football bubble will burst," says Trevor Beattie, the man who developed both Labour's general election adverts and the FCUK campaign for French Connection. "I think it is rapidly falling down morally and I think people will get sick of it. It will reach its peak with the World Cup and it will be downhill from then on."

Despite the advertising recession currently battering the TV industry, the channels are not shirking from large projects. "Everybody wants 'big', and everybody is being encouraged to be as ambitious as possible," says Stephen Lambert, director of programmes at the production company RDF Media. RDF is working on a project for Channel 4 in which a drama series, a game show and a website will be linked, although the details are being kept top secret.

Another thing getting TV executives excited is interactivity. But they want to go further than before, and now viewers will be able to control the entire programme. RDF is developing the Channel 4 show Eden, which starts next week, in which viewers will pick the contestants and vote them on and off the show, and even decide what they will eat, say and do.

The original interactive show, Big Brother, will be back in the summer and this series is likely to be as successful as the last two. We haven't seen the last of warbling wannabees on our screens, either. "The Popstars/Pop Idol thing will carry on, with a twist on that theme," says Mr Elstein. "I also think they will add on more episodes at the end [of Pop Idol] just to keep the thing going."

But the frivolous entertainment will coincide with an increased number of documentaries and current affairs shows, to cater for the more serious mood of the public post-11 September. "We have seen a resurgence in powerful, strong, authoritative television. Everything that happened last autumn means that people want documentaries that explain the world to them," says Mr Rowland.

The traditional format of the documentary could be transformed. "The advancement of TV graphics has been fantastic," says Mr Beattie. "There will be a growth in virtual programming, for example re-enacting the JFK assassination."

Viewers can also expect expansion of a less popular kind. The TV channels are so strapped for cash that they are cramming in as many commercial breaks as possible, and adverts seem destined to proliferate.

"Commercial breaks will get longer and longer," believes Mr Beattie. "It's a sneaking, growing, creeping thing. The quality of the programming will get better but there will be dodgy meat in the sandwich."

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