“Viewer, You’re on the Air”: The Follies of Interactive Programming

Talking back to your TV isn't a metaphor anymore, a fact that's posing a lot of problems.

It was in 1995 that the world’s first, official “interactive” film was produced and screened. Titled Mr. Payback, the film starred Billy Warlock, and was made for showing in specially-equipped theaters where joysticks had been attached to the seats.

The movie was a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure for the big screen. While watching the film, audience members were given a choice about what action the hero should take. Via their personal joysticks, they could vote about what they wanted to see. They could also “vote” as many times as they wanted but were always at risk of being “outvoted” by those sitting around them. What happened on screen was strictly dictated by majority rule.

If you’ve never heard of Mr. Payback, don’t be alarmed. The film was a commercial failure and a major critical flop. Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, in their respective newspaper columns and on their weekly movie review TV show, lambasted the film and each named it to their year-end list of 1995’s worst cinematic offerings. Ebert especially objected to the film, not only in terms of entertainment value but also on principle. To him the idea of an interactive movie flew in the face of what movie-going was all about: one goes to the movies to be affected by what was happening on the screen, not to effect what was happening on screen.

Some form of interactivity has long been a part of television. It dates back to 1948 and TV’s Original Amateur Hour, a precursor to American Idol and all of TV’s current crop of talent contests, which offered viewers the chance to mail in postcards every week in order to “vote” for their favorite talent from the week before. Interactivity then runs up the history of the airwaves though Donahue (“Is the Caller there?”) to Larry King (“Columbus, you’re on the air!”). Today, the boom in social media allows viewers, for better or for worse, to constantly chime in on what they are watching and provide feedback — whether it’s wanted or not.

In fact, today, it seems like TV can’t get you to your keypad or cellphone fast enough. In the name of being modern and “with it” everyone from Dancing With the Stars to The Talk to Big Brother wants you to chat, hashtag, and text your brains out about their show by offering you the constant chance to comment on, advise or question what you are watching. And to do it right now! It’s all part of our new normal of “oversharing” and creating “content” for the sake of creating content.

Frankly, when it comes to all these calls to (digital) action currently coming from my TV, I begin to echo the sentiments of Ebert: I don’t turn to TV to be that active and involved in it. If I really wanted to be “active” and “involved,” wouldn’t I be doing something else besides watching TV?

Of course, all this digital audience response is smart business for the programs that are requesting them. Every tweet and text is evidence that someone is actually, currently watching and all that digital evidence is necessary at a time when the Nielsen ratings are especially fractured and diluted by various media platforms and the actual numbers/ratings that Nielsen reports are smaller and more fought over than ever before.

But, as helpful as it might be in helping programs stay on the air and to justify their existence, is all this audience interactive leading to better, or even good, television?

Producers, no doubt, feel they have done something highly democratic by allowing anyone with a cellphone to now chime in with their opinions. Getting people “involved,” creating a “dialogue,” making the audience “part of the show” (even though they really aren’t) are the new buzz words and phrases.

Looking back to interactivity’s earlier years, personally I could never stand the call-in questions when they were de rigueur on Donahue and other similar talk programs. The flow of the conversation and the show always seemed to come to an immediate and dead stop as the airwaves were turned over to some static-y and often ill-spoken phoner usually with a slightly off-topic ax to grind. These call-ins also never seemed that necessary. I mean, what do we have skilled interviewers and hosts for in the first place if not to ask pertinent and interesting questions themselves and without someone who just happened to dial in and get through?

Of course, today, as in most talk programs, spoken or digital, “questions” have been replaced by “comments”. So, now, as soon as somebody dances on Dancing With the Stars or sings on American Idol, I can read on screen exactly what Kitten44, JoshLove or SallyBally1 has to say about it. Is this supposed to enrich my viewing experience?

Reality and talk TV’s embracing of the Twittersphere, etc., is one thing but a far more interesting—and perhaps troubling—phenomenon is how much various social media platforms have come to influence and affect fictional television programs. Yes, sometimes online campaigns exist to keep a show on the air, but in the past two years increasingly campaigns are launched to influence storylines, casting and other in-program elements.

Both Entertainment Weekly and The Christian Science Monitor have, in recent years, published articles on the brand new juggling act that TV show runners must now conduct thanks to social media and the instant feedback it affords fans. Producers and writers must now often do a brand new creative dance, one that fulfills their own creative vision while also appeasing their loyal but often very vocal and mercurial fanbase.

Such viewer feedback is, of course, not also nothing completely new. Back in the ’70s, fan response turned Henry Wrinkler’s The Fonz from a minor character to a major component on the series Happy Days. Similarly, Urkel only started getting more and more screen time on Family Matters after producers picked up on the rising fan love/interest for his nerdish character.

The difference in the present day is the speed in which fans can give showrunners a response. The instantaneous reaction that fans and foes of a program alike have now via social media has forevermore (like everything else in this modern world) sped up the pace of this process. Fans now possess so much power and influence it now seems difficult to determine who is, literally, running the show.

Moreover, does this drama by committee or drama of the least resistance work to the overall betterment of television and movie product? If Casablanca were being made today would Rick and Ilsa end up together because that’s, probably, what “the fans” would demand? In a possible remake of Gone With the Wind, would Rhett stay with Scarlett at the end if the online petition had gotten enough virtual “signatures”? And if Shakespeare were writing today, would Romeo & Juliet have a much different ending since the original one would probably be classified as such a “total downer”?

Fan interest and even fanaticism, of course, is part of the fun of television viewing, the building of a community, etc. But the rapid response of fans to their favorite shows and both the expectancy that their wants will be acted on and some producers’s willingness to often give in to fan demands, is wiping out anything inventive and creative. And, whether they know it or not, it’s also stealing something from fans’ enjoyment.