It appears that the “future of Television” has arrived in Switzerland, and her name is Betty. This is at least what the Swisscom web page announces, clarifying further: “Don’t just watch – open up a new world of television and be part of it! Use the Betty TV remote control to take part in interactive competitions, surveys and exciting quizzes.”
Betty is what iTV (interactive TV) professionals call a Red-Button application. The name is self-explanatory: the service allows TV spectators to choose additional features in a TV broadcast by pressing a button on their remote-control.
Television industry loves the Red Button, for two obvious reasons. First of all, the industry gets to save face with the advertisers, who are increasingly wary of the fragmenting TV audiences and falling ratings. Red Button gives commercial sponsors an attractive vision of a consumer seamlessly going from watching a commercial to buying a product.
Second, red-button-enhanced shows require additional production efforts, which in turn allows a number of TV executives to re-brand themselves as iTV experts and go ahead producing the same programming from additional camera angles or with alternative endings, and to celebrate each others mediocrity at iTV awards every year.
There is a third, less obvious reason, why the TV industry has embraced the Red Button so readily. For years it had to live with the threat of the Internet, of on-demand entertainment, of fragmentation of media and other potential dangers that could awaken intelligence in your average TV-addicted couch potato. People like myself are guilty of going on and on about the fact that the ”i” in iTV should not stand for interactive, but for intelligent. We have been predicting a revolution of sorts, a radical shift in the economic model, and even the downfall mass media. In all of these discussions the “lean-back” model of traditional TV was opposed to the “lean-forward” model of the new digital entertainment. And in the end some of us naively hoped that it might even be good for our culture.
Little Betty, who by now I somehow imagine as a Little Red Ridinghood, is the most brilliant defence Television could come up with to protect itself from these threats. By incorporating this button inside the remote control, it has managed to make lean-back look like lean-forward. It has created a tool that appears revolutionary, interactive, digital – though in fact the technology behind it is so limited that it can only allow consumers to watch more of the same television fare.
Besides the “impulse buy” response to advertisement which I mentioned earlier, there a very few things one can do with the Red Button. A TV stream can be multiplied into several additional streams – various camera angles in a race, various courts at a tennis tournament. The audience of a reality TV show can vote on who stays and who goes (don’t they already?). You can take a multiple-choice quiz. And, of course, you can always shop. The only known “killer application” of the Red Button is betting. Is that the revolution we are looking for?
The irony of the Swisscom’s announcement lies in the fact that the company is, indeed, bringing to us the future of TV – but it is coming from another department. Swisscom’s upcoming IPTV service is indeed promising something closer to intelligent TV, with a rich library of content available on demand to TV viewers, and a limitless potential for truly sophisticated applications and offers to be developed within the IPTV set-top box.
But with Betty around, why would a couch potato bother to look for more intelligent choices, if he can follow the magic click of the zapper into the oblivion of mindless applications and mind-numbing games, ensuring that the future of TV is forever imprisoned in its past.