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What is Interactive TV?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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Interactive TV is television users can interact with, altering the appearance of what is displayed or having an impact on the display in some other way, rather than consuming passively. There are a number of approaches to interactive television, ranging from programs where viewers can vote to television with instant messaging capabilities, allowing people to chat while they are watching television. The earliest attempts at interactive television date to the 1950s, when viewers were invited to engage with what was happening onscreen, although they could not alter the programming itself. The phenomenon took off in the 1990s as more and more viewers acquired Internet and became accustomed to interactive programming.

Some interactive TV requires people to use special television sets designed for interactive programming. In other cases, the set-top box unit can have programming for interactive television, often connected to the user's Internet connection. Special remotes may be provided, as well with extra controls for interactive activities. In addition to using the Internet, interactive TV can also rely on the phone line or on cell phones, with people interacting over the phone.

Voting programs, where people interact with reality television or register real-time response to debates, are examples of interactive television. Sports programs may allow people to change camera angles and generate instant replays. People can also play games on interactive TV or use split screen programming, watching television on one screen and chatting, emailing, or engaging in other activities in the other.

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Broadcasters use interactive TV as a means for creating an enhanced experience. It can also create a tailored ad experience for users, by feeding ads on the basis of activities and expressed preferences. This can increase ad targeting and advertisers may pay a premium for this service. The crossover between Internet and television broadcast content also permits for the development of television shows on the web with the potential for bringing those shows to broadcast on television or interactive gaming systems.

This development in media was not welcomed with open arms by all media consumers. Some people feared that interactive TV would result in split focus for viewers, or found it distracting. Other critics expressed concerns about targeted advertising and the potential for reaching children through the messages in interactive programming. Privacy worries were also brought up by some consumer advocates who examined the systems used for targeted advertising and consumer to consumer interactions and were worried about the lack of safeguards in place for consumer privacy.

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