Channeling television's future

Three new TV-viewing scenarios could change television as we know it, but not for the better.

COMMENTARY--What's so wrong with television that every pundit and analyst insists it must change into something new? What's wrong with the way it is? Their expectations tend to be the same, with one or more of the following scenarios coming up most often:

Interactive Television. Interactive television is the biggest pipe dream. People like to interact with information devices such as the computer or the Internet, but they don't necessarily want to interact with everything. You don't interact with a Broadway play except to laugh or applaud. Audiences used to heckle stage performers and routinely throw vegetables in 1850 theater houses, but this practice was abandoned. Today, nobody yells at performers at a Broadway musical. Even at public events where yelling and ridiculing is accepted, such as baseball and football games, there's no true interaction. The players don't yell back or even acknowledge the yellers. In small venues such as comedy clubs, performers routinely stifle hecklers with various put-downs. This is as close to true interactivity as we get, and it's unpleasant. Most people watching a performance want to watch it, not interact with it.

This is true in the art world, as well. People don't want to interact with art; they want to watch it or look at it. Of course, there's always the small temptation to paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa, but this isn't a desire for interactivity; it's vandalism.

The notion of interactivity as promoted by the "new TV" mavens is misguided, based solely on a desire to develop new advertising mechanisms. If they could pinpoint viewers through interactivity, they could target ads more easily and sell them at much higher prices. There's no other driv ing force behind interactive television. This seems to be lost in the conversation.

I recently chatted with some folks about this, and they thought I may be right in my assumptions, but I may also be on the wrong side of some nebulous generation gap. "Kids are not as averse to interactive television," they said. All I know is my kids use the computer for interactivity, and watch TV shows just like adults—and only if they like the show.

Television on Demand. The next holy grail of nouveau television, television on demand comes a bit closer to having some leverage, but this sort of open-ended programming could ruin the medium for good. Television is designed to herd viewers into viewing patterns. Certain shows follow others for a reason. One network competes with another in a warlike environment. If we're to accept the notion that competition is good, we have to accept the terms of competition: head-to-head programming at normal prime-time hours. The TV-on-demand folks argue that various technologies, such as offsite video buffering, will enable us to watch whatever show we want whenever we want. But with 500 channels and no guidance from network programmers as to what's important, how will any show reach the kind of critical mass that, say, "Friends" or "Seinfeld" once enjoyed? Word of mouth takes a long time to cycle. When I think of video on demand, I think of movies or boxing or other special events. The new-TV folks think it applies to all television.

Personalized Television. Here again is an ideal that's evolved without a single shred of evidence that anyone wants it. It reminds me of the customized newspaper or magazine idea that was promoted on the Internet. Some users liked the idea, but it was ultimately a disappointment because editing and designing a customized product for yourself or anyone else is probably not your job. Professional editors can do a much better job of organizing news than you can, just as TV professionals should be able to do a better job of programming. Incompetent programmers do come along, but they're quickly replaced. It's all part of the competitive environment.

What's overlooked in all this future-of-TV nonsense is that television ain't broke. Why fix it? Although the Internet has sucked up some viewing time, it's not a threat to television with or without streaming media.

Much of the problem with television is the executives who feel more comfortable within a siege-mentality framework. They're now part of large corporations such as Disney (ABC), GE (NBC), and Viacom (CBS). These are the sorts of companies that enjoy the siege mentality. They see threats all around and feel they must change to stay alive. But this is insanity and paranoia. If it continues it will ruin television.