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Saturday, 17 February 2007

Anyone for interactive?

Nuno Bernardo used to work in advertising. Then he came up with an idea for a television project that would exploit teen girls’ obsession with their mobile phones. ‘Sofia’s Diary’ would be a soap opera presenting viewers with a daily dilemma in Sofia’s life, which they could then vote on by texting, emailing or telephoning. “We found that a personal diary was the best way to engage the target group, but there were millions of diaries in the market so we wanted to reinvent the format. That’s why we made it interactive and cross-media, so that viewers could have 360 degree access.”

The programme premiered in 2003; it is now the number 1 television series on Portugal’s Channel 2, while tie-in books have sold over 300,000 copies, second only to Harry Potter. Sony have bought international rights to the format and a U.S. version is now in pre-production. Bernardo admits the concept “has exceeded our expectations. We were aiming for a specific target audience of teenage girls but we’ve discovered it appeals to so many different audiences; whole families sit and watch the show.”

To many working in the field of interactive television research, the resounding success of ‘Sofia’s Diary’ will come as no surprise. Bernardo’s claim that “the growth of interactive television is inevitable” seems to be backed up by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ 2002 establishment of a new Emmy Award category for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Interactive Television Programming’. At the time, Chairman Bryce Zabel explained, “The establishment of this award is a significant event in the history of television as it recognizes that interactivity is an important and growing part of the television viewing experience”.

The BBC is at the forefront of interactive television, as the largest producer of iTV in the world. Their newest experiment in the genre, to be released as an internet-only product this year, is aimed at a similar pubescent market to the one Bernardo has so successfully tapped in Portugal. ‘Wannabes’ follows a group of teenagers in Brighton, tracking their lives, loves and friendships. Laura Bates, who plays cheeky blonde ‘Charlie’ explains the interactive element that sets the show apart: “We shot 14 episodes and 2 episodes will be released every week. Each episode is 15 minutes long and includes moments where the viewer has to choose a certain course of action over another. One example is when a character is going out with another girl from the show and a letter comes through the door which he knows is from her ex-boyfriend. He turns to the camera and says ‘I know I should be honest but what do you think I should do?’ And you have to choose whether he rips it up or gives it to the girl.’ If the series takes off, as the precedent set by ‘Sofia’s Diary’ suggests it might, the show could transfer from an internet-only platform to a wider television audience.

That viewers should want to interact and influence their entertainment is not necessarily as new a phenomenon as you might think. Charles Dickens’ serialized novels elicited a huge volume of readers’ letters after every instalment. Although he refused to indulge readers’ pleas to save ‘Little Nell’ in the Old Curiosity Shop, he did bow to a reader’s letter in 1849, when a Mrs Jane Seymour Hill complained (correctly) that he had based the deformed and unsympathetic character of Miss Mowcher in ‘David Copperfield’ on her. Writing, "I have suffered long and much from my personal deformities, but never before at the hands of a man so highly gifted as Charles Dickens”, she prompted Dickens to turn around his portrayal of the character, and respond: "I am most exceedingly and unfeigningly sorry to have been the unfortunate occasion of giving you a moment's distress".

Just over a century later, in 1953, CBS aired the first interactive television programme ever, ‘Winky Dink and You’. In an imaginative leap of tv programming, children were required to place acetate over their tv screen and then use crayons to draw various objects that might help Winky Dink on his way, such as bridges or ropes. This baby step in the journey towards interactive global domination was sadly halted when parents complained that their children were dispensing with their ‘magic window’ or acetate, and instead colouring directly onto the screen. Yet in the four years that it ran, two million Winky Dink drawing kits were sold. Come on, wouldn't you have bought one?

But the novelty value of interactive tv will only take it so far. Crucially, although a wide cross-section of Portugal’s tv-watching population have embraced ‘Sofia’s Diary’ from the comfort of their sofas, Nuno Bernardo admits that those who sit up and interact are still limited to the original target audience: “The majority of people who actually participate are young girls, everyone else just watches”. Meanwhile, Professor Oskar Juhlin from the Interactive Institute in Sweden (an international research centre with around 70 employees) predicts that the growth of interactive television could hit a ceiling because “many people watch tv and just want some form of passive engagement”. He also suggests interactive tv could be its own worst enemy: “TV is a mass medium so making it interactive is much more problematic than something like computer gaming, where you can tailor the interactive experience to the individual. If you offer different endings to a mass tv audience, there will always be some viewers who don’t get the ending they wanted, and they’ll inevitably feel frustrated, and eventually stop voting, just like people have stopped voting in elections: because they don’t feel listened to.”

To this problem Nuno Bernardo has found a solution of sorts. For every episode of ‘Sofia’s Diary’, two possible endings are shot. The ending with the majority vote from viewers is then broadcast the next day; but for viewers who were outvoted, the alternate episode is available on VOD (video on demand). “That way, although you know the story won’t continue the way you wanted, at least you get some sort of reward for voting” he says. Presumably it helps that production company Beactive also reap a considerable reward from the exercise, with significant extra revenue from VOD sales helping justify the high cost of producing so much content that would otherwise lie unused.

There’s no denying that in the long term there is potential for interactive television to develop and find new ways of attracting niche audiences. With an increasing demographic of singletons coming home to their widescreen television and a microwave meal-for-one, participating in their favourite programme - whether drama, sports or reality tv shows like Big Brother - allows what used to be a lonely, introverted experience to take on the aspect of a community activity. Yet gaining user confidence in even niche markets could take time. As Donald Norman points out in his book ‘Interactions’, “Technology may change rapidly, but people change slowly’.

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