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Interactive Television

If you listen to the hype, interactive television is already here. It is, after all, now possible for viewers to vote on alternate endings, participate

If you listen to the hype, interactive television is already here. It is, after all, now possible for viewers to vote on alternate endings, participate vicariously in quiz shows, or link to the Web while watching the tube. What more could anyone want? I’ll tell you what: everything.

What passes for interactive TV today is to the future of the medium as early bulletin boards were to the Internet. Lots of fun at the time, but, in retrospect, a mere intimation of things to come. The same thing is about to happen with interactive television and other advanced TV technologies. And, it’s something that audio production people want to be aware of. Big time.

Consider this: Forrester Research says that interactive television will generate more than $20 billion in revenue by 2004, and that iTV will surpass the Internet as an advertising of change that will be sitting on the table.


Interactive television is the end form of a continuum of technologies that we can call “enhanced TV.” Enhanced TV is any form of programming that allows consumers to interact directly with content. All forms of enhanced TV today are made possible by the merging of TV video with Internet content and data. Already, more than 1,500 hours a week of enhanced TV programming is available in the United States.

One form of enhanced TV now becoming prevalent can be called “Internet TV,” with access to the Web in concert with more-or-less conventional television fare. It’s a good approach, but present services available from providers such as Microsoft still only hint at things to come.

Another step on the road to true interactive television viewing is Video on Demand (VOD), which we can also call “personal TV.” This family of technologies gives consumers the power to watch what they want, when they want. The most effective forms of personal TV today combine an electronic program guide and searchable listings with digital video recorders such as Tivo or Replay TV. This arrangement lets consumers select programs for viewing by title, type of show or cast, and to watch a program with complete random-access control.

True iTV will combine all of these capabilities and extend them to their maximum potential, allowing user interaction with program content, dynamic wideband Internet in parallel, and complete user control of program and time of viewing.

Most of the technologies for full interactive TV are deployed today. What remains is to combine these effectively, with content being the key element. Programming for iTV is something that providers are just starting to come to grips with, and it’s a whole different world from TV production today.

Traditional television programming will have to be amplified, not just with viewer voting and browseable cast biographies, but with extremely dynamic content such as multilanguage subtitles, audio commentary and so forth.


Interactive television combines traditional TV signal delivery with an Internet connection. This is not difficult in itself, but the means by which the two communication channels are coordinated is key. This has to be specified and defined in a way that both content developers and hardware designers can use.

In enhanced TV, a standard television signal, whether broadcast, cable or satellite, goes to a receiver that is linked to the Internet by a dial-up or other connection. Trigger signals are embedded or broadcast separately to link the program to a server coordinated with the program, allowing for any sort of value-add the program’s producers or repurposers desire. Overlays and picture-in-window can be used to present online info, with input from the viewer by wireless remote or keyboard.


The Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) is an alliance of broadcast TV, cable, satellite, consumer electronics and computer companies set up for the purpose of creating HTML-based television products and services. To date, the work of ATVEF has resulted in an Enhanced Content Specification, with the goal of making it possible for developers to author content once and have it display properly on any compliant receiver over any transport. Information about the ATVEF standard can be found at

Content production for interactive TV following ATVEF specification consists of the following steps: produce a broadcast program, or secure an existing program to repurpose; create HTML pages to complement the broadcast and post these to a Web server; create the triggers that link the Web content and the TV broadcast; and broadcast those triggers to a compatible receiver.


In the States today, MSN TV (formerly WebTV) is the leading interactive television service. MSN TV serves both as a computerless Internet access and as an interactive amplification of ordinary TV viewing. MSN TV requires a dedicated set-top box that sells for $100 to $200, with a monthly access fee. Behind the set-top box, MSN TV’s infrastructure consists of a Web browser designed to integrate with a television-viewing environment and the MSN TV service that delivers Web-integrated television content. Microsoft actively cultivates development of programming for the system, and full information on development can be found at

MSN TV’s set-top receiver is an ATVEF-compatible “thin client,” meaning that its guts are a computer, but one with minimal resources — just enough to perform basic functions. When viewing MSN TV, most features are performed by the TV service and delivered to the receiver by proxy servers. MSN TV offers a range of both cable and satellite receivers, with connection to the Internet by phone line. An optional Ethernet connection allows for use of DSL and cable modem with interactive TV functionality.

The receiver incorporates a browser that has been adapted to work well on a television display. This enables the TV to display Web content such as standard HTML, JavaScript, MP3 files and other multimedia events.

The TV browser differs from a PC-based browser in ways that required conscious adaptation of HTML for the environment. For instance, the browser does not run within a system of windows. For developers, this means that viewers cannot simply open a new browser window — there is only one window displayed at a time. Also, the receiver has to use a resolution of 544×372 pixels to match the viewable area on a TV screen. The browser does not scroll horizontally. When the browser encounters content wider than 544 pixels, the receiver has an intricate set of rules that allow it to adjust content. The receivers do not process Java or ActiveX® controls, or any other application that requires a plug-in or external application to function (like Adobe Acrobat .PDF files). The MSN TV service includes e-mail, an electronic program guide, interactive TV and special Internet content.


Interactive TV will be a gold mine of opportunities for audio professionals, but it’s going to require some very different approaches. We can expect that auxiliary content for an iTV program will include alternate audio streams for alternate languages, commentaries, etc. In addition, parallel Web content will need its audio components. Production budgets may expand to some extent to address these needs, but the pressure will be on to do these things quickly, cheap and well. The standard production environment for sound for TV is likely to start looking like a field hospital in a combat theater.

Even more challenging will be production of live television events such as sports. Even today, the remote trucks that bring us these events operate at a high level of efficiency compared to “sedate” environments such as music recording. When every event involves multiple channels generated in real time, there will be a need for staff and facilities that can respond instantly.

The future looks extremely bright for interactive television, in all its myriad forms. Audio professionals who start to position themselves today can expect to have ample opportunities, along with major challenges, in this dynamic new field.

Gary Hall is an icon in the “loop music” movement, having created many of the core technologies of real-time audio sampling. He resides in Alameda, Calif., the densest enclave of loop music creators on the planet.


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Advanced Television