Brush Under Carpet 

11 May 2008

Television producers under ever increasing pressure to provide the hottest, most attractive interactive television experience must be getting driven to near nervous breakdown these days. There is an expectation that television now can compete with the internet and appear to promise the idea of letting viewers have a chance to influence what happens on-screen. Pity it can’t be done.

Usually these attempts at interactivity take the form of phone polls in which viewers vote for a limited set of multiple-choice options – who to vote in, who to vote out, who to put at the top of a list of best or worst, bands, programmes, buildings or just about anything that breathes or indeed, doesn’t.

The fact is that such voting systems do not currently have sufficiently robust technical infrastructure to render them totally fair when open to later investigation.

The resurrection of that Saturday morning TV stalwart Swap Shop – now in a new format presented by Basil Brush though without the guiding influence of Great Uncle Ivan Owen – shows new interest in a very old format: direct viewer participation.

Producers have now started to realise that viewer loyalty cannot be increased by offering an illusion of access via telephone votes alone. They are beginning to grasp that no telephone service provider will be able to handle potentially vast numbers of calls without an electronic risk of some not being counted, thus skewing any voting results obtained.

In recent years the assumption was that allowing thousands to phone a device that does nothing other than register the vote was seen as an attractive proposition because no human call handling was required. It could be promoted as ‘interaction’ and therefore a chargeable service. This was a lucrative proposition until periodic improprieties and technical problems began to come to light.

If the producers of the new Basil Brush Swap Shop are now learning the right lessons they may have realised that the opposite route, letting system limitations lock most viewers out, is not as alienating as it may first appear. This is a means by which expectations could be managed back down to a realistic level, something that both the viewers and society probably now needs.

I don’t think that many kids today, being more technically savvy than previous generations, are under any illusions that they can all register an item to swap, on one programme, given that there will have to be some human interaction over the details.

Rather than just casting a vote or adding to a count, wanting to register a possible swap will mean getting a brief slice of actual airtime, either with a name check or a scrolling caption. On a national television show such airtime must be limited and fleeting.

I remember when my dad tried to call Swap Shop for me and I didn’t want this. I was terrified at the prospect of having to speak to Noel Edmonds. The line was engaged all the time – and boy, was I relieved.

Only a few people should ever get through because this won’t be voting as such. It’s qualitative interaction rather than quantitative one. The fact that most calls would just end in an engaged tone is a more realistic indication of the chances that the call faced in the first place. The God of interactivity is tamed and reality prevails.

Perhaps those who tried to vote for Rhydian in the recent series of X Factor were better off getting an engaged signal than hearing a message saying their call had been counted when in some recent experiences it wouldn’t be.

In an area bordering on fraud, worse still is getting through and being charged but the system being too overloaded to register the actual vote, leaving a silent line but a caller out of pocket.

The more special a caller can be made to feel when they do get through increases the feeling of magic and excitement. It could also recreate an actual sense of competition through having to try harder to get through on a limited number of lines.

Broadcasters may at last be realising that interaction by volume alone is not the easy money-spinner that they first imagined and that Ofcom’s beady oversight could now make the exercise newly unprofitable. The fines for cutting corners could soak up any money made and tarnish reputations even further.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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