Interactive TV: Over the Top, or Just Not?

It’s no surprise that the average American spends an amazing 20% of their time passively watching TV every single day.  Viewing numbers have always been high, but what is truly amazing is television’s resilience in the face of newer media and technologies -- including the Internet and mobile and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter -- that put the interactive control squarely in the hands of the consumer.

The fact that we spend 35 hours a week watching TV is not lost on the media industry.  

A lot of big companies have spent big money over the last 25 years in an attempt to make the viewing experience less passive and more interactive. Some of those change efforts are driven by sheer desire to reach people on the screen where they spend the most time. Other initiatives are driven by fear that consumers will abandon ‘passive’ TV and adopt shiny new forms of interactive media.



Why not bring that interactivity to the TV screen, and give control to the consumers without losing them to another screen?  All in an effort to get them to watch more TV, be more engaged and buy more products as a result of TV advertising -- and ideally buy them right from their TV set.

A very credible argument can be made that pre-Internet attempts at making TV interactive were not successful because of the economics of implementing said interactivity. With no two-way communication system (like the Internet) or standard protocols to enable and fulfill content requests, everything had to be built from scratch at prohibitive costs. That drove a lot of the early pioneers (remember WebTV?) into financial oblivion.

 That is not the case anymore.  The Internet has made interactive media easy and affordable.  The technology to deliver the entire Internet on the TV set is readily available, without the consumer needing a Ph.D. in audio-video cabling.  

Wireless TVs automatically and seamlessly connect to the Internet and high-speed connections are ready to immediately deliver whatever a consumer wants. And yet, in this era of seamless technology and connectivity, consumer adoption of interactive television has been surprisingly slow.

 While the Internet has permeated our lives in more ways than anyone could have predicted just a few years ago, TV technology itself has not been entirely static. Yes, it has advanced tremendously and has made the viewing experience richer.  TVs are now cheaper, bigger, thinner, hang on walls and have all gone digital.

With the ever-expanding array of channels and OnDemand offerings, it’s no wonder that people continue to spend more than two hours a day in front of the "first screen." Frankly, they’re just doing what they’ve always done--watching television. There aren’t that many apps being interacted with, Web sites being surfed and little true ’’interactive’ content being consumed on the TV.

So what happened to the Next Big Thing?  

In the collision between technical advances and consumer preferences, consumer preferences always win.  Not that people don’t like interactivity and having content at their fingertips; it just so happens that they prefer it on their computers, laptops, tablets and smart phones. They’re just not into interactivity on the 60-inch thing of beauty hanging on the wall where they watch "Entourage," "American Idol," "The Mentalist" and the Super Bowl.  

For the most part, the interaction they’re enjoying while watching TV is with family and friends, beer and chips.  It appears that if they truly want supplemental content to their favorite shows and networks, a smartphone or tablet is within arm’s reach and optimized for the precise level of interactivity.

A lot of smart companies are looking at the "third screen" -- mobile and tablets -- to deliver enhanced content synchronized to what people are watching on their shiny thin digital TVs. Some require the users to check-in and indicate what they’re watching in order to get additional content, rewards points and other prizes.

Other applications try to passively determine what users may be watching on television and deliver additional content automatically to the third screen. These latter apps seem to have a higher probability of success, as they are not trying to change consumer behavior, but are recognizing and adapting the interactive experience to consumer behavior itself.

The more successful new content technologies are not the ones that deliver interactivity to the TV set; they actually what TV is good at: sight, sound, motion.  Despite its 2011 customer service debacle, Netflix still has approximately 25 million subscribers and maintains its popularity as one of the most popular over-the-top content apps available. Hulu is another example of a successful content delivery system. Both deliver what the consumer is looking for: sight, sound and motion. Not exactly interactive, but it gives consumers access to expanded content and more control over what they watch and when they watch it.  

TV is one of the best--if not biggest--inventions in the field of entertainment.  And people expect it to do just that--entertain. It does not matter where the content comes from. Interactivity for the sake of interactivity is more suited for computers, tablets, smartphones and other yet to be invented devices. And while interactive TV may indeed catch on and take off, it’s more likely to be a matter of better leveraging the core advantages of multiple screens and platforms.   

The tablets are perfectly suited to drive people to specific content areas on the Internet -- be that programming content or advertising.  Applications can passively track what people are watching and pull in the relevant content without the consumer having to do anything.  It’s like adaptive cruise control and self parking built in!  The user can sit back and enjoy an interactive and enhanced experience – across two screens, not one.

We had the most-watched SuperBowl in history this Sunday.  The audience is there and at $3.5 million a pop, the advertisers continue to believe in the power passive television.

What are your thoughts on the future of interactive television? Drop me a line and let me know. (


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