The future of television appears to be known by four letters, HDTV, but high definition images are really only the beginning of what television has in store for the future. Right now, digital television represents the single most evolutionary progression of television technology since those wild and crazy days when black & white gave way to color. A digital television is different from your old-fashioned analog television by virtue of its capability for providing a far more impressive resolution of the image. In other words, a digital set delivers an exponentially sharper image to your screen.
HDTV accomplishes this task by transmitting an electronic signal stored within a binary sequence rather than through a signal that is continually varying. HDTV sets are therefore able to display high definition television images at full resolution, something that current analog sets cannot accomplish. Analog television sets work by what amounts to generating a set of lines that run down the length of the screen, and the resolution suffers due to signal degradation during the transmission process. Digital television sets offer a higher quality image because their signals suffer no such signal degradation. The number of channels carried by an analog signal is only one per coaxial, while digital signals are capable of carrying an infinite number of channels. Equally important is that an analog signal’s quality can be literally all over the place from unwatchable to fairly decent. Digital transmission, on the other hand, reaches a quality equitable to a DVD. This is because HDTV offers 1080 scan lines which is more than double the number of analog screens, resulting in a greater ratio of width to height; HDTV presents an aspect ratio almost four times the size of analog.
HDTV offers the promise of making the act of looking at a TV more beautiful, but how will networks utilize the technology? The real future of television is what people will be able to do with those signals. Much like the word plastics was the single piece of advice given to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, the one word that might be whispered around an upper middle class swimming pool to today’s college graduates thinking of a career in television is interactivity. At all levels of the television industry, people are working hard to make the experience of watching television in the future more like the experience of surfing the internet. Interactive television offers a great deal of intriguing potentialities, and with those potentialities comes the possibility of lurking dangers. One of the biggest concerns about interactive television is the effect it will have upon the creative process. There already exists technology intent on replacing long commercial breaks with advertising that is seamlessly integrated into the program itself. For instance, while watching your favorite drama or sitcom in the future, you might very well expect to witness far more scenes where the characters are watching TV or sitting at a computer surfing the internet than you are used to. Why? Because on the television set or the computer screen there will appear a commercial. It is even likely that the dialogue being spoken by the characters will be in reference to the product being advertised.
How the concept of interactivity comes into play will be a direct result of the influx of digital video recording devices like TiVo that let users snip out commercial breaks before watching their show. The reduction of the effect that standard commercials have on sponsor profits have already resulted in a mad scramble to develop new ways to increase consumer awareness of products and services that can’t be deleted, or even ignored by taking a bathroom break since to do so would result in missing what’s happening in the story. The most futuristic, Jetsons-like idea for accomplishing this is the creation of interactive software in which a viewer can actually pause the live transmission a show and use the TV’s remote control like a computer mouse to click on something like the shirt or shoes that character is wearing. The viewer will be able to literally change the color of the clothing the actor is wearing and even make some basic stylistic changes before choosing the proper size and then buy it directly from the TV. Or, let’s say that a character has a sofa you like. Or a painting hanging on the wall. Or kitchen equipment and appliances. The same principle applies. The technology won’t stop there, however, it will be expanded to include the purchase of things that aren’t even physically part of the show. For instance, let’s say you are watching a show and a character mentions his favorite book. You will be able to pause the show, bring up the script and highlight the name of the book which will take you to a place like Amazon.com where you can buy a copy.
So far, this all sounds not too bad. How many of us have ever seen a character wearing something on TV that we would like? (I’m still trying to track down that green jacket that Little Joe wore on Bonanza.) But the potential for how this interactivity can affect the creative process is fraught with pitfalls. Let’s go back to that character mentioning his favorite book. Now let’s say his favorite book just happens to be a novel written by an author who is scheduled to appear on Good Morning America the next day. Now, did the writer just happen to get lucky by matching up his character’s personality to the type of person whose favorite book would be written by an author the network was plugging the next day? Probably not. Or let’s say your favorite romantic couple discuss going on a cruise. You pause, bring up the script and look into taking that very same cruise in real life. The question becomes did the writers decide to have the couple go on a cruise—or even just discuss going on a cruise—because it would be an interesting story or integral to the plot, or was this discussion introduced merely to sell the cruise? The possibilities for abuse of interactivity is endless. Product placement right now has already gone insane; interactive TV threatens to reduce even the most talented of screenwriters into a copywriter. Clearly, what is meant by interactivity is the utter annihilation of the already fuzzy line that currently exists between entertainment and advertising.