Jane Wakefield: Tuning the telly into the Net

Why is the black box that sits in the corner of all our livingrooms being left behind in the Internet revolution?
Written by Jane Wakefield, Contributor

Given the choice between sitting in my draughty hallway on a hardbacked chair surfing the Net or sitting on my comfy sofa with a remote control in my hands, I would, unsurprisingly, choose the latter every time.

The TV is so much of an essential to me that I confess I often turn it on before I turn on the light and there are few mind-numbingly dull programmes about interior design that I cannot watch with equanimity. In the case of a fire there would certainly be a pause and a mental toss-up between saving the black box and waking my boyfriend (who is likely to be sleeping in close vicinity to the set with remote control in hand).

I don't suppose I am alone in my obsession, and so it would seem that TV was the perfect medium for getting the techno-reluctant to embrace the Net and all its wonders as ordered by the grown-ups that run the country. There is a TV (or seven) in the majority of houses, flats and even caravans across the UK so it would be the perfect place to plonk the Internet. Then the Blairite army which started this obsession with an information-rich society would be able to sit back and smile. Job done.

But it has not worked out like that. While digital TV is slowly kicking off -- the government is optimistically hopeful that half the nation will have access by the end of 2002 -- it is less certain how many people are actually accessing the interactive content on their digital sets. A survey from Continental Research puts it as low as 0.9 percent of the 12 million digital viewers that are actually using such services.

This is partly down to lack of awareness. Only half those surveyed by Continental Research knew that they could access interactive content on their TVs. I, on the other hand, represent what I suspect is the other half: those who know it is there but have no desire to use it.

The idea of access to Argos online or the ability to order a pizza is just not appealing to me, and as I don't play games, indulge in regular gambling -- the killer app of iDTV according to Jupiter -- or need to send email via my TV I have little use for the content. I just don't believe (perhaps wrongly) that there is anything there that I couldn't already access via good old-fashioned Teletext -- in fact Teletext seems to be faster.

According to ntl -- the cable company from which I receive my iDTV service -- I am missing a world of opportunity, including 120 content partners to go virtual shopping with. But for me, and I guess other viewers, the idea of a walled garden, while it sounds exotic and interesting is in reality frustratingly dull. The beauty of its grown-up cousin, the World Wide Web, who has already left home and got a job, is that it is exactly that -- world-wide.

If I want to browse for holidays a quick search will show me a huge list of possibilities, some of which will take me off on a sidetrack I never intended to go on but that will end up making me spend money (that is how I came across my holiday this year, for example). In a walled garden you can only go where ntl or Open or whichever other platform you are on wants you to go.

So ironically the thing that draws people to purchase digital TV sets in the first place -- choice -- is the very thing that is currently missing from its interactive content. Until it has the courage to allow its viewers out into the big bad world of WWW then it will have to settle for a tiny percentage of clicks.

Of course, the opening up of the Net by major broadcasters like Sky, ntl and Telewest is not currently practical for two reasons. For one, despite Channel 5 doing its damnedest to change us from a nation of Mary Whitehouses into one of Paul Raymonds, hardcore porn is still theoretically banned from our small screen and so some kind of new virtual watershed will have to be found to differentiate TV content from its evil friend, the Internet. (ONdigital has its ONnet TV/Web-surfing service, but then ONdigital only has about a million subscribers.)

Secondly the Internet just doesn't look very nice on the television as it is designed with PC monitors in mind. The industry is caught in a catch-22 situation, there is no incentive for Web designers to make Web sites TV-friendly because no-one is using the TV to access the Net and no-one is accessing the Web via TV because it looks so bloody awful.

Some greater link has to be forged between the TV and Internet industries if Labour stands any chance of seeing its twin goals of universal Internet access and conversion to digital signal by 2010 achieved. There is already a degree of panic setting in. Last month it announced yet another scheme aimed at combating the digital divide. Having already decided to dump off some PCs on what it has identified as "deprived" areas -- only to find users on its pilot estate in Liverpool turn around and sell them on at a fraction of their value -- the government is also now offering free digital TVs to homes in order to monitor what people are doing with them.

The answer could leave them wondering if putting all its eggs in the digital basket was a wise choice. Even the TV content -- which was originally hoped to drive uptake of digital sets -- has proved less than attractive to a discerning and sophisticated TV audience. Some digital channels are struggling to attract audiences bigger than one man and his dog -- and that is only for the special shepherd news channel.

What would make sense to me would be to forge closer links between TV programmes' Web pages and the interactive button that is sitting but a thumb's distance away from its audience. So those online chats with the scientist on tomorrow's world or the popstar on Saturday morning TV could be transferred to our TV sets.

This Friday sees the return of Big Brother, the TV show in which a group of mismatched and uninspiring people spend a lot of time together, alternating between winding each other up and trying to get off with each other. The last time it hit our screens it proved to be as big a success on the Net as on the TV, one of the first programmes to successfully make such a crossover.

If TV execs could find a way of allowing people to vote for the householders it likes best or even chat with the guests then that is the kind of application that may have us, if not exactly moving off our sofas, then at least sitting up and paying attention.

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