Avatars, Audiences and Interactive Television

This presentation was given at the 100th National Communication Association Conference in Chicago on November 21, 2014. This presentation reflects the work I have done with Pooky Amsterdam to understand the nature and potential of virtual world television as reported in the Journal of Virtual World Research. This presentation was awarded one of the Top Paper Awards for the Communication of the Future Division.

The current state of affairs brings what is “television” into question. Amongst the various layers of activity and discourse that surround it, “television” can, and perhaps should, be deconstructed into at least two primary components: the content it relays, “television-as-content,” versus the technical interface it is, “television-as-technology”. There may soon come a time when the idea of watching television does not involve the use of a television set. Instead, television content will be increasingly divorced from the medium for which it was developed: over-the-air broadcasting of audiovisual content. At that time, television-as-content will become another aspect of the Internet.

These challenges to what is “television” are also challenges to the traditional models of production, distribution, exhibition and consumption that have for so long defined it. These challenges are also implicated in the move toward higher interactivity. The traditional models are predicated on transmission and passivity, whereas the interactive models require dialogue and activity. Concepts and technologies like video on demand, time-shifting, and social television are all part of these challenges. This paper explores yet another, virtual world television or VWTV. With VWTV, we are seeing another possible location for the evolution of television.

The dream of an interactive television experience has been with the technology almost since its inception. One of the earliest examples of what we would come to consider as interactive television was the 1953 CBS children’s series Winky Dink and You, where children would put plastic sheets up to their television and draw on them at specific times to help Winky Dink in his adventures. Since then, technologies have been developed, from VCRs to DVRs, or appropriated, from the Internet to cellular phones, to supplement traditional television and to empower the audience in its interaction with television.

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iTV discussions and experiments have focused on making the delivery platform, aka the television set, interactive. Experiments have been conducted on how to make television interactive as a new technological system for delivering content, or with content offering interactive possibilities for consumers. Jensen and Toscan (1999) defined interactive television, or “two-way TV”, as occurring when the viewer makes choices and provides input that is more than just interacting with the television set via a remote control. Given the a priori nature of the Internet as an interactive medium, requiring activity on the part of the consumer for content to be accessed, the Internet may be more structurally sound for the broadcasting of interactive television content.

Across the years of research and experimentation in the implementation of iTV, there can be seen three main approaches to making television more interactive. According to Cesar and Chorianopoulos (2009), these approaches can be seen as: content editing, providing authorship and creative capabilities to end-users; content sharing, focusing on synchronous or asynchronous communication with other end-users; and content-control, allowing end-users more control over their selection and consumption processes.

While we use different terms, our analysis focuses on the same types of possible interactive activities. Access interactivity is defined as the ability to allow people to control their methods of consumption: the what, whens, wheres, and hows of consumption. Social interactivity is the ability for people to engage with other audience members during consumption. Content interactivity is the ability for audience members to impact the experience and/or the progression of the content.

Across these three types of activities, access interactivity has been the most common in iTV, with increases in social interactivity due to mobile technologies and social media. Content interactivity, especially when focused on the progression of content, has been less seen, due to technical hurdles for such interactivity. In addition, these social interactivity and content interactivity can be synchronous or asynchronous to the broadcast or, if online, streaming of the program, with more asynchronous interactivities seen than synchronous ones.

In this presentation, we are considering the extent to which television produced in an online virtual world affords for all three of these interactivity actions. Virtual worlds are digital environments in which people, via digital representations or avatars, gather and engage in a variety of social and personal activities. The virtual world we focus on for this project is Second Life, a social virtual world dependent upon user-generated design for its very existence.

Virtual worlds involve multiple users coordinating in real time to produce series via processes that are similar to television production in the physical world, such as acting, filming, sound recording, sound editing, and video editing. To be considered television series, these productions have to be multi-part fictional or non-fictional productions that are either serial or episodic, and such productions represent a range of genres.  There are productions recorded as avatars interact with one another and are then edited in post-production for streaming.  These productions are analogous to filmed drama and comedy television series.  Then there are productions that live stream the avatars’ interactions as they occur, while also recording them for later streaming.  These productions are analogous to the variety of live shows on television, from news to sports to special events.

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Second Life as a technology allows for its audiences/users to become producers, and the producers utilize this technology to create interactive television. In their position as producers, these Second Life users produce content that other users, their shows’ audience can control when they access it, watch live and in conversation within the audience, and influence the progression of the content through their conversations. These experimental productions demonstrate how to utilize a digital technology to produce and consume television that aligns with the ideals of interactive television.

Within Second Life, at least 54 television series have been produced. Of these located series, 23 producers of 39 series were interviewed. Producers were interviewed as and are referred to by their Second Life avatar names to reflect their in-world identities as producers and to maintain any desire for anonymity and distance between their virtual and physical identities.

The producers were contacted via email and interviewed via Skype. They were asked to discuss the following: what led them to enter Second Life and to create their series; what were their ideas of the series’ design and the audience’s role for the program; what they were challenged by and learned about; how they were helped and hindered during production; and how they saw virtual world television in relationship to traditional television, as well as its future. The analysis for this presentation focuses on their answers to their ideas about their series’ design and their audience’s role as well as how they see VWTV relating to traditional TV.

Three television series illustrate the primary differences in the content and style of these series.  The television series The 1st Question was categorized as a quiz show as every episode features participants to answer trivia questions. The producers actively invited audience members to participate by asking the guests questions during the show.  To facilitate this relationship and role of the audience, a television studio was built to resemble those found in the physical world. Audience members could answer the quiz questions via an in-world texting feature, thereby helping the panelists win.

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A second example is an ongoing series that differs from The 1st Question in that the audience does not participate and it is not recorded in a television studio format; it represents more of a sports broadcast format The series Giant Snail Races, produced by RacerX Gulwing, is part race, part obstacle course. In this show, Second Life users can participate in each episode as contestants that decorate snail avatars to match an episode’s specific theme; the contestants control the avatars around a race track / obstacle course as RacerX and his co-hosts narrate their progress.

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A third example replicates programming that would be recorded and edited prior to any audience involvement. In these genres, inhabitants can only participate by being the featured guests or as hired or voluntary actors. Lucy Eberhart’s The Real Desperate Housewives of Beaver Ridge is an example of a series filmed without any audience but with a cast comprised of Second Life inhabitants. The narrative follows various characters in the setting of Beaver Ridge, and has some distinctly comedic flair to its scripts, themes, and characterizations.

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VWTV agencies such as Treet TV and Metaverse TV serve as both production houses and broadcast networks. As production houses, they provide SL users with the assistance to utilize the virtual world for television production; thus, they are mediating actors, enabling users to become producers by providing access to the tools, skills, and personnel needed to produce television. As broadcast agencies, they provide both SL users and WWW users that ability to access live streamed or archived material at a time, place, and pace of their choosing.

Whether or not a VWTV production utilizes one of their agencies, the series included in this project all allow their audiences members, their consumers, some type of access interactivity that is synonymous with the types seen with the use of the WWW by traditional television. Shows that are live streamed, which is synonymous with live broadcasting, can be viewed either inworld, through special plug-ins or exhibition areas, or via online video sharing platforms or specialized website hosting. Even if a show is live streamed, it is still recorded and archived for later viewing at the same online platforms. Those shows that are recorded and edited are likewise made available online. The posting of episodes online is the same as done by traditional television, as both are capitalizing on the server databases and broadband infrastructure of the Internet to provide consumers with more options for how they engage with the content.

Traditional television is experimenting with how to bring synchronous social interactivity to their offerings here in the United States largely by the “second screen” technique: laptops, tablets or smartphones are utilized to sync up with the program as it broadcasts to provide audiences with the means to communicate with each other, as if sharing a “virtual living room”. VWTV, on the other hand, can utilize an inworld feature to facilitate and encourage synchronous social interaction through the same screen as the program’s content. Using the text chat feature structured into the virtual world, VWTV producers can provide their audiences with the ability to chat with one another while watching the show, in a way that would not disrupt the production of the show as it would in traditional television studio audiences. For example, the producer of the series Metanomics called such a texting structure a “chatbridge” or “backchat“, creating what the producer called a “constructive cacophony”.

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At each of the locations in Second Life, there were balls in the audience sections that were treated metaphorically as microphones. If the audience member sat her avatar within a specified range to this “microphone”, then anything she types in her chat field will automatically be included as part of this “constructive cacophony”. Individuals who watched the live stream at the website could likewise log in and participate in the chatbridge from there. The host and the guests were also a linked to the chatbridge and would sometimes partake in the conversation. The producers also used this chatbridge to send out announcements before, during and after the show, such as information about the show’s sponsors, links to websites discussed in the show, and information about upcoming episodes. With Metanomics, this chatbridge also linked the virtual world audience to the audience streaming the episode on their devoted website, thereby expanding access to this synchronous social interactivity.

The chatbridge is not used only for promoting synchronous social interactivity. A number of VWTV productions employed this text chatting feature in order to connect those in the audience with those on stage. As a talk show, Metanomics connected the audience, inworld and online, with the show’s producers and the episode’s guests, and encouraged the audience to ask questions and make comments that would be brought into the episode’s discussion. As a quiz show, The 1st Question, the audience is put into direct connection with the contestants, who will often implore the audience to help them find the right answer, and one segment of the show directly requires the audience to vote for one of the contestants. Because the producers, host and guests are all part of the chatbridge, there is the possibility that any audience member could impact the course of the episode.

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In addition, this conversation can also help insure that the production of the episode goes smoothly, as the audience can inform the producers of any glitches in distribution and exhibition as they occur inworld and online. On other shows, such as sport shows, performance shows, and drama series, Second Life inhabitants who might have only have been audience are given the change to participate as athletes, musicians, actors – chances to participate in the content creation were it not that they were in Second Life. In essence, the audience can become de facto crew members, helping to insure the successful production of each episode. Thus, the producers are able to utilize the technological feature of the virtual world to permit and promote a type of synchronous content interactivity, as the audience can participate to produce the program.

For the most part, VWTV is remediating the access and social interactivities that have been increasingly added to traditional television. VWTV permits the same type of timeshifting behaviors that have been seen with DVR devices and online streaming. Given that VWTV exists entirely over the Internet, and thus could be classified as Internet-based television, the ability to permit access interactivity is expected. Additionally, some VWTV productions promote synchronous social interactivity through the text chat channel, thereby creating a form of Social TV that traditional television is increasingly experimenting with through the use of social media and mobile technologies.

These productions remediate traditional television genre formats that promote the duality of audience/participant. The programs with such interactivity tend to be live shows, replicating studio audience formats from traditional television that allow for questions from the audience or encouraged the audience to play along. However, the content interactivity of these programs is not equitable with the truest form seen in digital games: the progress of the television content is not reactive to each single viewer. Instead, the content reacted to the aggregated audience or “lucky viewer”; everyone who wanted to influence the content could not directly do so.

Where the truest synchronous content interactivity occurs is with the lower barriers to enter the production process. Upon entering the virtual world, these Second Life users are able to produce their own television programs. They are no longer just “audience to television”; they are able to change their position to “producer of television”. In addition there is the duality of audience/crew, as those in the audience can assist in quality assurance of the production or even directly provide some aspect of the content, either behind-the-scenes or in front of the cameras. Thus, a person’s dreams of being part of a television production, while perhaps not possible when considering traditional television, can be more realized with VWTV.

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Through their ability to produce television shows that demonstrate an interconnectedness of the three types of interactivity, VWTV showcases how the dis-embedding of “television-as-content” from “television-as-technology” and its subsequent re-embedding into various virtual environments can promote an interactive television experience not yet matched by traditional television. The virtual world Second Life — a social medium whose existence is predicated on user-generated content — provides the producers interviews in this study and their audiences with a platform within which to produce a range of interactivities. The online platform allows for these individuals to express themselves – whether as user turned television producer, audience turned participant, or audience turned crew – while also being another means by which people can control their consumption and gather socially to watch television. What the VWTV programs in this analysis indicate is that there is an audience for these interactivities, and it may be that as interactive media become increasingly common in our daily lives, this audience base may likewise increase.

By giving those who would traditionally only be audience the ability to produce and consume television-as-content divorced from traditional television, virtual world television indicates yet another challenger to the traditional television models of production, distribution, exhibition and consumption. Part of the reason VWTV presents a challenge is due to its ability to also permit and promote more and varied types of interactivity than currently found in traditional television. We are not saying that the dream of interactive television has been realized in VWTV, but perhaps it is showing another step towards the achievement of that goal and the further evolution of television.

Such a goal may be better reached under the communal and social nature of virtual worlds. As we have previously discussed in the published article in Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, the VWTV producers heralded the virtual worlds’ ability to foster relationships and community as one of its stronger features. Indeed, the fact that these producers can create more interactivity may be related to this communal nature of Second Life. It may be that under these conditions, the producers and their audiences may want more of a dialogic participation with their fellow Second Life inhabitants, to reflect and reinforce the insular nature of their unique community. In this context, the television producers want to engage with their friends and friendlies, so they encourage engagement through the combination of the three interactivities. Thus, VWTV produces interactive television not for financial reasons, as seen with traditional television, but for relational reasons. Should traditional television desire to create more engagement with their viewers, then the industry should likewise seek to focus on such communal and relational outcomes, with the idea being that the financial outcomes would follow.

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