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The television, internet and DVD are all media technologies which are considered ‘interactive’ in contemporary society. Many people find them alluring as they seemingly offer more than just the one-way channel of communication typical of traditional media. They are considered ‘interactive’ in the sense that they allow navigation � giving the user greater control over the order in which onscreen events unfold � and also in that they imply a two-way communication between the consumer and producer. This essay however argues that such media technologies do not offer ‘a two-way communication’ by any means, but merely an illusion or ‘sense’ of participation. In fact, the notion itself is one which is exploited by producers within the industry to attract consumers, often giving viewers the false impression that they are in fact determining the progression and outcome of onscreen events. This heightened sense of interactivity, in television in particular, not only highlights the growing desirablity of interactivity in new media technologies, but also the increasing convergence of media technologies in the global marketplace.

In order to tackle this question of ‘interactivity’, the term firstly needs to be defined and contextualisd � being that it is a concept that is a often generalised, mixed-up and poorly defined. This essay will discuss the term in two fundamentally discrete ways. On the one hand, the essay look at ‘interactivity’ as a process of empowering users with greater control over the sequence in which information is presented to them, a definition related to increased interactivity with content. On the other hand, it will use the term to describe an increase in the interaction that ‘news consumers’ can have with ‘news producers’, a defintion related to increased feedback (King, 1840). As such, this essay will discuss the term ‘interactivity’, specifically in relation to information and entertainment on the internet, television and DVD.

Ross Harley uses the concept of “old wine in new bottles” to discuss the re-packaging of old media in new and exciting ways to attract consumers. Indeed, he notes the attachment of the terms ‘interaction’ and ‘participation’ to new media technolgies, in calling upon the “enablement” discourse � which guarantees the consumer complete immersion into a stimulating world of media and information (Harley, 1610).

Indeed, television is a medium which has fully taken advantage of the concept of ‘interactivity’ to capture and entice audiences, who are made to believe that they somewhat affect the sequence and content of broadcasting programmes. Television programmes such as “Big Brother”, “Video Hits” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” rely on ‘audience participation’ as part of the show, as well as the illusion that home viewers can in fact control the sequence or outcome of the show itself.

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“Big Brother” is a great example of a show that completely depends on the ‘interactivity’ of viewers at home, or rather their certainty that they can actively participate in the progression and results of the show. Viewers can ‘nominate’ who they want ‘in’, or rather ‘out’ of the house by simply ‘sms-ing’ the name of the person or dialling the telephone number that coincides with the nominee’s name. Viewers can thus have their say and place their votes by using their telephone or mobile phone, another interactive technology.

These ‘extra’ activities which the show invokes works to immerse viewers ‘into the image’ (Darley, 00016). That is, by allowing viewers to do such things as to call in and place a vote or play a live over-the-phone quiz, the producers further engross viewers into the programme, also making them feel as though they are truly a part of the show � that they are not just people at home watching a television show but ‘participants’ who have the ability to control what goes on in the house. Darley labels this impression of interactivity a ‘heightening of sensation’, through inciting typically sedentary viewers to perform other actions besides merely ‘viewing’ � that nevertheless enhances their television experiences (Darley, 000157).

The interface of “Big Brother” reinforces this heightened sense of interactivity. The show’s visual style is extremely reminiscent of the ‘windows interface’ � with its multi-layered screen, occasional pop-up box, dynamic text and illuminated ‘buttons’ and icons (Vered, 1740-1). In fact, this ‘windows’ aesthetic is specifically employed to create a feeling for the user that they are in fact interacting with the television screen, the same way that they do with the computer. The ‘keyboard’ is now the remote control, telephone and mobile phone. These technologies are used to trigger ‘events’ in the ‘hyper-real’ world.

Like “Big Brother”, The “Interactive Top Ten” also relies on a ‘windows interface’ and telephone votes to create a sense of viewer participation. The split screens and button-like icons situate the viewer as an ‘active participant’. In reality however, the likelihood of the home viewer being able to control what they see on screen is zero is none. These television shows merely create an ‘illusion’ of interactivity or participation to attract audiences. Not in any way does it decrease the producer’s power and increase viewer control � the relationship betwee the two remain unaltered.. Power back to the people? Very unlikely. In fact, Vered classifies this notion of interactivity as an act of consumption, whereby every move the user makes is recorded and utilised as a marketing ploy for him/her � more accurate than ever. In other words, by making consumers believe that they are becoming less of a consumer (and more of a producer), ‘real producers’ are able to commodify consumers more intensely than ever before. This illusion of user-control disguises each act of consumption as an act of active participation (Vered, 1750-5).

In fact, Harley relates these notions of participation and interactivity to ‘vertical integration’ and ‘cross-marketing’, in increasingly interconnected media markets. The internet, television and DVD generally form alliances with eachother as well as other media to exploit audiences, by providing more opportunity to consume products. The partnership of Channel Nine and Microsoft to form NineMSN is a good example of how media technologies take advantage of the notion interactivity for cross-promotional purposes. Using a windows aethetic, Channel Nine constantly refers viewers to the NineMSN website for more information on any news item or programme, while the website endorses upcoming shows and stars belonging to the network.

The World Wide Web on its own also exploits the technological possibility of two-way interaction for essentially one-way commercial objectives � “the sale and promotion of goods and services” (Harley, 16104). Internet shopping, for example, offers the user a trolley, a shopping list and ease of navigation (through the shopping mall) for what is ultimately an exchange of money and goods. Just like in a shopping centre, users are made to feel as though they are within a self-driven environment, whereby the ‘freedom’ to select is as boundless as a Westfields Shopping Centre.

Audiences/users are promised more control and ‘connection’ than ever before � the power to freely interact with people and multimedia products in any way they desire. Television programmes such as “Video Hits” guarantee a show completely powered by the home viewer. In fact, the show exploits the concept of ‘interactivity’ by having a whole hour segment dedicated to viewers at home called the “Interactive Top Ten”, where people can call up to vote for their favourite song (out of a list of ten songs). The votes are then tallied, and the song with the most votes becomes No.1, the song with the next most votes becomes No. and so on. In a nutshell, “Video Hits” rely on the concept of the home viewer determining the order in which the ten songs are played (which nonetheless would still be played). A voting viewer is also entered into a random draw to become the “Interactive Top Ten Assistant Producer” and have their name ‘honourably’ shown on the credits.

While this feedback element is ‘interactive’ in the sense that it takes viewer responses into some consideration, television programmes such as “Video Hits” do not redefine the relationship between consumers and producers. Viewers are by no means a ‘producer’ or even ‘assistant producer’ of the show � it has been designed by the real producers to work regardless of whatever order the video clips are shown � giving them of course the benefit of the doubt that the votes are actually tallied and affect the sequence of the video clips at all.

In retrospect, Harley’s “old wine” could indeed refer to traditional print media, whereby letters to the editor or journalists serve as outlets, or rather avenues of feedback. However, with such traditional media, it is not common for editors or journalists to feel they have to respond to all those who have written. Clearly, on-line media are more ‘interactive’, in that they respond more readily to feedback (King, 184). Many websites request user feedback through email or questionaires, which also often ask more general and personal questions for marketing purposes. However, most websites do not have the capacity to respond to all emails and thus, this sense of ‘interactivity’ is also quite limited.

DVDs are also seen as a revolutionary media technology that offer innovative interactive experiences. The ‘interactive menus’ which operate like computer interfaces; the option to view scenes at random and multiple angles; the variety of different languages and subtitles to select from; and sometimes the ability to choose the ending of a film are all huge selling points for an ‘interactive hungry’ society. However, the vital question is whether or not DVD offers ‘real’ interactivity.

DVDs are considered interactive because they offer the user the ability to naviagate, and thus determine the sequence in which viewers encounter information (King, 1844). While this feature characterises the DVD as a distinct medium, it does not have much bearing on the relationship between consumer and producer. Although DVD users are able to access more features, and watch scenes in any sequence, they are still constrained by what the producer makes available.

By using Harley’s concept of “old wine in new bottles” (Harley, 1610), DVDs can be perceived as a slightly extended version of the ‘chose your own path’ books which originated decades ago. These books allowed the reader to choose from a selection of usually three or four scenarios every so often � which although allowed the reader some choices of events and navigation, was ultimately just a few variations of the same story melded into one. The authors of these books promised readers the ability to choose how the story would end; what would happen in the book; and even their very own storyline. Hence, promises of interactivity are not new or exclusive to new media technolgies. In the past, they did not reconstruct the relationship between the reader and the writer and this relationship has remained steadfast to date.

Stewart Aslop, a former editor-in-chief of ‘InfoWorld’, defines navigation as permiting users to hop from item to item in a relatively random way without fully engaging with any of the material presented (Aslop, 158). In fact, he sees navigation as a way to avoid paying attention, while most observers see it as a positive attribute of interactivity. Fluid navigation allows users to access content efficiently in whatever sequence they desire, appropriating information and experiencing it in ways the producer did not forestall.

Many online media define interactivity as user control over content. Some media websites allow users to create their own homepages with people or shows they find most interesting, while others contain multiple links to related websites, allowing readers to follow the trail as far as they wish. However, according to King, this notion of interactivity is defective in at least two major ways. It not only muddles up action with interaction, but it also does not alter the relationship of the user to the ‘material or the organisation’ (King, 1841).

The most problematic aspect of the concept of interactivity as the control over content is that ‘reading or watching is not interaction at all’ � but merely higher forms of engagement (Aslop,15171). Inducing users to read or watch is merely providing them with information. Frantically clicking through websites is not a sign of ‘interactivity’, but rather an indication that the user has not found the desired information. Moreover, through all the clicking and site leaping, internet users often find themselves getting side tracked from what they were originally after � and it is not until they stop somewhere, that any content becomes meaningful. As such, Darley’s notion of ‘surface play’ could apply here, which stresses the point that increased participation does not necessarily bring about less passive reception (Darley, 000 165). Although it may excite the senses, navigation does not essentially signify a deep and meaningful ‘interaction’. For that reason, ‘interactivity’ must also be measured in terms of how much depth and substance it invokes.

Moreover, Gunther opines that by allowing users to freely navigate through content, consumers will be able to ‘personalise’ their information, and thus the mass audience will be replaced by micro-audiences � thereby changing the relationship between producer and consumer (Gunther, 155-). However, this logic is troublesome because even if consumers can navigate freely throughout the web, they are still constrained by what the web producers offer. Online news media, for example, can provide much more information on a website than a half-hour broadcast, but the network’s producers and journalists are still generating the content. The consumer remains dependent on the producer’s decisions and thus that relationship remains unchanged. A website does not give a user more control over information � definitely no more than any print medium. Thus, the ultimate distinction between online-media and traditional media is not interactivity or navigational ability, but the sheer quantity of information obtainable (King, 184).

In conclusion, while media technologies such as the television, internet and DVD have generated new and interesting ways of delivering information, ‘interactivity’ as a two-way communication between the consumer and producer, or as the ability for users to control the sequence in which information is presented does not significantly differentiate it from traditional media. In fact, these technologies merely evoke sensations of participation and control for commercial purposes � through seemingly profuse options made available and an ‘interactive’ aesthetic design. Moreover, the relationship between media users and media producers have also remained unaltered, in fact, leaving the consumer subjected to more areas of consumption than ever before. Thus, the so-called interactive media technolgies within society are not as ‘interactive’ as they claim to be. However, they do instigate other activities besides just reading and watching which is indeed an upgrade from passive viewing. Yet, in order to be truly distinguished from traditional media and to label themselves as truly interactive, new media technologies must find a means of re-defining the relationship between the consumer and the producer.

Aslop, S. (15) “Real Choice, Not Just More Work That’s what makes the web truly interactive” in InfoWorld, 17, no., pp. 164-175

Darley, A. (000) “Games and rides. Surfing the image” in Visual Digital Culture. Surface play and spectacle in new media genres (London and New York Routledge), pp. 147-166

Gunther, M. (November 15) “News You Can Choose Television networks are staking out their turf in cyberspace” in American Journalism Review, 17, no , pp. 5-

Harley, R. (16) “That’s Interaction Audience Participation in Entertainment Monopolies” in Convergence, University of Luton Press

Huizinga, J. (150) “Homo ludens. A study of the play element in culture” (Boston Beacon Press), pp. 1-46

King, E. (Winter 18) “Redefining Relationships Interactivity Between News Producers and Consumers” in Convergence, Winter vol. 4, no. 4

Nelson, T. (174) “Computer Lib” (North Holland Pub Chicago)

Vered, K. (17) “Televisual Aesthetics in YK” in Convergence, University of Luton Press, Autumn 81, pp. 40-60

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