Interactive TV: Do We Really Want It?

Netflix is pushing a new form of television, which allows viewers to choose how the storyline develops. Called "branching narratives" by the OTT provider, these shows allow viewers to select options at key moments ("choice points") in the plot, and effectively drive the direction the story goes in.

The first show, Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale features the character from Shrek stuck in a book of fairy tales. Viewers have to decide what action Puss should take in his attempts to escape the book. Here's a handy video from Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX), explaining how it all works.

The show is created by DreamWorks Animation and offers various options for viewers to select through the story, and even leads to multiple endings depending on the viewers' selections. Netflix will also be launching another interactive show titled Buddy Thunderstruck: The Maybe Pile and has yet another one, Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout waiting in the wings.

There's an element of déjà vu for me here -- the industry has been discussing the idea of a build-your-own narrative since digital cable was launched in the late nineties. The digital platform allowed for two-way interaction, and there were attempts to get viewers interacting with shows. There was also an experiment with movies, where viewers were able to vote on the decisions of a key character in the film, at important moments. The theater had a live polling system, and based on the majority response, the plot went in a particular direction.

It's not the technology that has been a limiting factor. Once you can deliver VoD on your network, the additional elements involved in enabling this kind of show format are comparatively simple. And of course, doing it online makes it still easier. But these experiments were not particularly successful, and that's why we haven't really seen much of this kind of programming take-off. TV viewing is often described as "lean-back," because viewers tend to want to get lost in the story rather than take control of it. The interactivity might have novelty value, but at least so far, it has not really resulted in sustained viewer enthusiasm.

Netflix's interest in developing this new format is probably based on the belief that viewer behavior has changed in the past 15 years. For one, the spread of mobile devices has seen a significant growth in media multi-tasking -- that's people using multiple devices at the same time. According to Deloitte's Digital Democracy Survey more than 95% of US TV viewers below 51 years of age are surfing the web, sending text messages or emails, tweeting or engaged in some other activity while they are watching TV. Even among older demographics, more than 80% are now involved with other activities while they watch TV.

Web-based interactive content related to a show being viewed has also had some success, with viewers interacting with web content simultaneously. But increasingly this seems to be tied to social media rather than interacting with content from the show itself. In fact, an earlier Deloitte survey found that "less than one-quarter of those watching television are engaging in multi-tasking activities that correlate with the ongoing program," and most of that program-related interaction probably centers around social media activity, such as reading and posting about the show on social networks.

I believe that part of the reason "true" interactive TV of this kind never took off is because another, better medium exists to cater to that need. Most people watch TV because they want a passive experience -- those that don't, take to gaming instead. Today gaming offers a high-quality audio-visual experience, and one that is still improving. It is immersive, interactive and offers a narrative approach that is better suited to interactivity than clicking on menus to move a story along just when it engages you. And with the emergence of virtual reality (VR), it offers a level of engagement that is unmatched to date.

TV/video will also offer 360-degree experiences, but these are going to roll out a lot faster for gaming than for traditional TV shows. Still, VR is probably a technology Netflix is thinking about, and it probably will lend itself to more interactive experiences for TV viewers. That might also be one consideration in the deployment of this new show format.

The other important element of Netflix's strategy is that these shows are aimed at children rather than adults. So it's not a gritty crime drama but rather something in-between a traditional children's animation and educational shows that do encourage children to react and engage, even if it's just shouting out answers to the TV or playing along in some way at home. Netflix has tested this format in recent months, and would not have moved forward if trials had entirely failed.

But the rollout is limited. While the OTT provider has developed three shows in this format, they are only available via more recent smart TVs and OTT set-top boxes. They are also available via most iOs devices -- but not Apple TV, Chromecast or Android devices. The broader rollout of the format will probably depend on its success.

The potential for extending this approach across TV programming seems limited for most TV shows. I can see the potential for TV news or documentaries, but that's more about selecting the news stories and topics that appeal to the viewer rather than influencing storylines. For a typical TV drama, prior attempts suggest most people would rather put their feet up and just "tube out."

— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation

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