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Interactive Television (iTV) in a European Context
 
What is iTV?
 
Whilst there is no general consensus on the definition of interactive television (iTV) or interactive digital television (iDTV) as a distinctive media form or experience, iTV has most simply been defined by Jensen and Toscan as 'two-way TV in which the viewer can make programming choices and produce user input' (1999: 16). iTV is reliant on a two-way model of communication, by means of which the viewer returns a signal to directly respond to a television broadcast. The television viewer can communicate with the programme broadcaster via a digital television system, with set-top box and remote control (such as BBC Red Button), but telephone lines, SMS-text services and online chat-programmes are also used as a return path.
 
Based on the fact that iTV producers find it more important to discuss concrete applications instead of the concept of 'interactivity', Van Dijk and De Vos (2001) have narrowed down the range of iTV applications by means of a questionnaire filled in by 56 European, 15 American and 3 Asian corporate experts. Interactive television applications rely on: 1) viewer communication in parallel to specific TV programmes (such as multilateral traffic by virtual fan communities); 2) viewers participating in, contributing to and reacting to TV programmes (e.g. quiz shows or social issues programmes), as well as viewers producing their own programmes or channels; and 3) activities that require viewers to choose from programme menus, such as video-on-demand, e-commerce, additional channels, and applications which enable the user to customize a programme: from the choice of camera angles, replay and zooming to the choice of plots and storylines (2001: 452-3). Consequently, iTV offers a variety of new forms and experiences through which viewers can interact with television.
 
Two perspectives on the history of iTV
 
On the one hand, the idea of using broadcasting as a means of two-way communication has been ongoing for a long time. Studies by Richeri (2004) and Jensen (2008)have outlined the various phases of the history of iTV in Europe and the United States, starting with experiments in video telephony in the 1950s and 1960s (such as the AT&T PicturePhone) and analogue iTV in the late 1970s and early 1980s (for example the Warner-Amex QUBE cable television system). According to Jensen, consumers began to experience technological innovations in the 1980s like the personal computer, the VCR and the video game console on such a broad scale that we can speak of an 'interactive turn'. Such endeavours paved the way for the convergence of TV and the Internet in the 1990s and the renewed interest in iTV in the early 21st century, as exemplified by trends like Enhanced TV and Personalised TV (2008: 4-8). From this perspective, conceptions of TV as a means of two-way communication can even be traced back to original ideas of radio communication as interactive and point to point information exchange (see Technology: Shaping European Television Infrastructures).
 
On the other hand, iTV has often been hailed as a new technological revolution, but has failed to reach its full potential as a commercially viable business. Experiments in iTV are frequently characterized by their short-lived existence. Examples are failed cable service projects in the early 1980s in several European countries (e.g. France's Plan cable; Richeri 2004: 60) and the 2002 commercial collapse of the Spanish DTTV platform Quiero TV, which operated interactive services. The numerous proclamations of an anticipated breakthrough have prompted critics to compare the commercial and technological pursuit of iTV with the infinite quest for the Holy Grail, in which iTV becomes 'the never yet found nor seen wonder product (...) which is expected to catapult the media industry into new and profitable arenas' (Jensen 2008: 2; see also Van Dijk & De Vos 2001). The gradual convergence of TV, Internet and mobile platforms, contemporary market conditions and the growing use of digital television systems around the world are expected to bring a variety of new television services and revenues to both television users and programme broadcasters, and the prospects of iTV are rising yet again. This time around, use case scenarios include iTV as a new application for mobile computing or 'mobile TV' (see e.g. Rauschenbach 2006).
 
iTV applications across Europe
 
Various European digital platforms which offer iTV features and services demonstrate the successful operation of interactive television in the current media-landscape. For example, the Spanish digital platform Digital+ (formerly Sogecable and Telefonica) began to broadcast the interactive game channel 'Playin' TV' in 2004. This interactive channel, through which television users can select and play games, is currently also provided by other European platforms, such as Sky Italia(Italy),Numericable (France), CanalSat (France) and Nova (Greece). In Italy, the two DTH platforms Stream and Telepiu formed Sky Italia in 2003, which launched the first interactive television betting platform in Italy in 2006. In the UK, BBC Red Button (up to 2008 known as BBCi) is an interactive digital service which allows viewers to e.g. interact with TV programmes, place bets, play games and see extra coverage. By means of this iTV service, as well as by logging on to the BBC homepage, British users have taken part in the televised national IQ test Test the Nation. Also in the UK, Sky Active (a continuation of the digital platform Open… from 2001 onwards), Sky News Active and Sky Sports Active are Sky Digital interactive features by means of which viewers can amongst others manage their Sky subscriptions, alter camera angles during sports games, vote in polls and submit questions during TV programmes. To conclude, the UK also offers various video-on-demand services, such as Virgin Media (TV programmes), Sky Anytime (sports, news, movies, TV programmes), Top Up TV (TV programmes) and BT Vision (sports, movies, music, TV programmes).
 
The reception of iTV services and formats has been more successful in some European countries than others. The iTV formats Zengi[1] and Puzzle Time[2], which were put on the international market by Endemol in countries such as the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Portugal, are two examples which have received a mixed response from audiences. Zengi scored a market share of 12.5 percent in Portugal (Ligar P'ra Ganhar) and 31.2 percent in Norway (Bokstavjakten) in 2003. Quite the reverse, Puzzle Time earned a market share of 32.5 percent in Portugal (Quem Quer Ganha) and 9.6 percent in Norway (Ordjakten) in 2003 (see 'Portugal and Norway Go Interactive', 23-06-2003). Taking into consideration that market shares can be dependent on a variety of factors, from the target audience, time slot and broadcasting channel to even the weather, such figures offer opportunities to reflect on the variable status and popularity of specific iTV formats in particular countries in Europe.
 
Future challenges for iTV
 
To conclude, the future of iTV remains unclear. The principal factors that will determine the success of interactive television in various countries in Europe are: the return path:to what extent are advanced digital systems of two-way communication, such as set-top boxes, available in households?; the quality and quantity of iTV: to what extent is the production of iTV content a viable enterprise for television producers, advertisers, and cable- and satellite companies?; (inter)national viewing cultures and user demands: to what extent do television users require interactive services, and to what extent do television viewers want their TV set to resemble a computer?; and finally, technological developments: to what extent will the industries of television, Internet and mobile telephony join together, and what kind of iTV formats and applications will triumph?
 
Berber Hagedoorn
Utrecht University
 
Further reading:
 
Jensen, Jens F. and Cathy Toscan. (1999) Interactive Television: The TV of the Future or the Future of TV?, (Aalborg University Press: Aalborg).
 
Jensen, Jens F. (2008) 'Interactive Television: A Brief History', in Manfred Tscheligi, Marianna Obrist and Artur Lugmayr (eds.), 6th European Conference - EuroITV 2008, July 3-4, 2008, Salzburg, Austria. pp. 1-10.
 
Lekakos, George, Chorianopoulos, Konstantinos and Georgios Doukidis. (2008) Interactive Digital Television: Technologies and Applications, (IGI Publishing: London).
 
Müller, Eggo. (2006) 'Access to the Living Room: Triple Play and Interactive Television Reshaping the Producer/Consumer Relation', in Shenja van der Graaf and Yushi Washida (eds.), Information Communication Technologies and Emerging Business Strategies,(Idea Group: Hershey). pp. 179-190.
 
Rauschenbach, Uwe. (2006) 'Interactive TV: A New Application for Mobile Computing', in Computers & Graphics no. 30. pp. 727-736.
 
Richeri, Giuseppe. (2004) 'The History of Interactive TV', in Fausto Colombo (ed.), TV and Interactivity in Europe: Mythologies, Theoretical Perspectives, Real Experiences, (Vita & Pensiero: Milan). pp. 57-68.
 
Van Dijk, Jan A.G.M. and Loes de Vos. (2001) 'Searching for the Holy Grail: Images of Interactive Television', in New Media and Society, volume 3, no. 4. pp. 443-465.


[1] Zengi is a game show format without studio contestants, whichconsists of viewers at home participating in various interactive puzzles and games.
[2] Puzzle Time is an interactive live quiz, in which studio contestants have to solve several word games before reaching the final, whilst viewers can also participate from home and earn prizes.