This is the end result of the work I have been doing with Pooky Amsterdam. This paper is the write-up of the presentation Avatars, Audiences and Interactive Television. I do not think there is enough in this paper to make pursuing publication worthwhile, but I do hope to use the categorizations of the three types of interactive television more, perhaps in an essay exploring the current state of media consumption. Because of this decision, I wanted to share the paper here, in case others are interested in the topic.
Avatars, User-generated Content and Interactive Television: Television Production in Second Life Exemplifying the Possibilities of Interactive Television
Interactive television has meant many things to many people in the television industry and marketplace, and it has represented an end goal for television’s potential almost since the medium first entered the domestic sphere. In the modern era of digitization and convergence, true interactive television may finally arrive. This current state of affairs, however, further calls into question the very idea of ‘television’ (see Bruns, 2008; Green, 2008; Meikle & Young, 2008; Tay & Turner, 2008; Wood, 2007). Among 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, or television-as-content, versus its function as a technical interface, or television-as-technology (van Dijk & de Vos, 2001; Wood, 2007). The time may come when the idea of watching television does not involve the use of a television set, an act which informs traditional conceptualizations of the medium. Instead, television content has become increasingly divorced from the technologies for which it was developed. At that time, television-as-content has become another aspect of the Internet as Internet-based streaming and mobile application distribution and series replace over-the-air and cable television programs.
These challenges to defining television test traditional models of production, distribution, exhibition and consumption that have defined the medium. These challenges also concern the move toward higher interactivity, which would have an overall impact on the culture that surrounds and constitutes television production and viewing. Traditional models of content delivery are predicated on transmission and passivity, whereas interactive models require dialogue and activity. Concepts and technologies like video on demand, time-shifting, and social television all represent aspects of these challenges to traditional television, and all represent changes in the culture of television. This paper explores yet another challenge: virtual world television or VWTV (Reinhard & Amsterdam, 2013), which represents a possible location for television’s evolution. Virtual world production and Internet distribution alters how people engage with television-as-content, given the technological differences between the Internet’s affordances and constraints compared to those of the television set and traditional television. The difference between the two lies primarily in the former’s increased interactive and user-generated nature; thus, shifting television culture to virtual worlds could indicate a shift in the production and viewing involved in television culture.
This paper explores the concept of television production in the virtual world Second Life, and the extent to which this user-generated technology allows for more types of interactivity than traditional television. The analysis considers how people create television programs through their avatars in the virtual world to replicate and experiment in the production of interactive television. Thus, this paper explores the extent to which the programs of virtual world television represent the types and trajectories of interactive television as seen in traditional television, and how these programs challenge the traditional conceptualization of television. In the end, the analysis demonstrates a shift in the role and power of the audience in the production and consumption of television, as the popular culture of television involves more activity and user-generated content from viewers as they become producers.
Defining Interactive Television
The 1953 CBS children’s series Winky Dink and You represents one of the earliest examples of interactive television (Gawlinski, 2003), although only superficially so. The show instructed children to hold plastic sheets up to their television screens at specific times when the program would pause and encourage the young viewers to help Winky Dink in his adventures by drawing something on the sheet. While a gimmick, many viewers later recalled feeling actively involved in the show. By the late 1950s, television programming began to include telephone call-ins (Gawlinski, 2003), providing the lucky few callers who got through the gatekeepers with a sense of connection to the television producers. The 1970s saw the emergence of public access or community access television (Gawlinski, 2003; Kellner, 1992; Linder, 1999) that operated on the idea of encouraging non-professionals—people better suited to give voice to their communities—to more actively participate in television production. However, such community outreach never produced the hoped-for revolution in television production and consumption.
Instead, the hopes for interactive television became more dependent on technologies developed or appropriated to supplement traditional television and empower the audience, such as making the television set interactive (Stewart, 1999), or developing a host of interactive technologies, such as VCRs and the Internet (Kim, 1999; Jensen & Toscan, 1999). Television producers began seriously experimenting with technologies to create interactive experiences in the 1970s with the introduction of videotext and teletext systems in some markets (Gawlinski, 2003; Kim, 1999; Stewart, 1999), while the rise of the VCR in the 1980s provided the viewer with more control over when to watch televised content. The Internet’s rise in the 1990s led to the first attempts at merging the TV set and the PC (Gawlinski, 2003); however, the convergence was ahead of its time for both the distribution infrastructure and the consumer’s desires. More recent innovations in the digital technologies of television distribution may make Jensen and Toscan’s (1999) “two-way TV” possible. As digital encoding of television compresses the signals, more data can be transmitted or broadcast over-the-air, cable, or broadband, allowing for the two-way exchange of signals needed for interactivity (Gawlinski, 2003). Further developments in the trajectory of developing or appropriating devices for interactive television purposes include digital broadcasting to HDTV, smart TV sets, and devices with streaming applications. Overall, the goal of these technologies appear to be the empowerment of the television audience to respond to television producers and have more control over television productions, at least in the sense of when and where they watch such programs.
The numerous attempts at developing or appropriating technologies for interactivity has resulted in an array of concepts and devices that, according to Gawlinski (2003), include: enhanced television, personal television, connected television; distribution interactivity, information interactivity, participation interactivity; and walled gardens, Internet on television, video on demand, personal video recorders. Virtual worlds represent another technology in which television can be produced and distributed. At the same time, they represent a space of user-generated content through which people interact with one another to produce and experience television. In a sense, virtual worlds have become a new television-as-technology in which to develop more interactive television-as-content. This paper examines how VWTV promotes and permits interactive television in ways not fully seen with traditional television.
Virtual Worlds Television
Virtual worlds are media products that attempt to replicate aspects of reality through digital (re)construction (Falvey, 2011), and their formation, population, promulgation, and presentation depend upon the actions of people, producers, and users; that is, to some extent, all virtual worlds depend upon user-generated content for their digital (re)constructions. Across virtual worlds, individuals have created places to produce television programming (Reinhard & Amsterdam, 2013). Virtual worlds can involve the activities of multiple users coordinating in real time to produce programming via processes similar to television production in the physical world, such as acting, sound recording, sound editing, video recording, and video editing. To be considered television series, these productions must be: multi-part fictional or non-fictional productions, serial or episodic, filmed with or without a live studio audience, and with a range of genres.
Virtual world television, then, utilizes virtual world structures to design spaces and enact practices to produce texts identified as television programming. Thus, VWTV producers use a social medium to produce content within the provided structure rather than just distributing through it. As a technology, the virtual world Second Life allows its audiences/users to become producers, and the producers employ this technology to create interactive television. In their position as producers, these Second Life users produce content that other users of the virtual world, such as their shows’ audience, can engage with in ways similar to and different from how a traditional television audience engages with traditional television. Second Life users control when and where they access VWTV; they can engage in conversation within the live audience, and they can influence the progression of the content through these conversations. These experimental productions demonstrate how digital technology to produce and consume television that aligns with the ideals of interactive television.
The VWTV Project
The project reported by Reinhard and Amsterdam (2013) studied fifty-four television series had been produced in Second Life. Of these located series, twenty-three producers of thirty-nine series were interviewed, and are referred to in this article via their inworld—that is, their Second Life—identities. Producers 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 challenges they encountered and they learned from them; how they were helped and hindered during production; and how they saw virtual world television in relationship to traditional television. The analysis for this paper focuses on their answers about their series’ design and their audience’s role as well as how they see VWTV relating to traditional TV.
Three VWTV series illustrate the primary differences in the content and style of these series. As seen in Figure 1, The 1st Question was categorized as a quiz show as every episode would feature panelists answering questions about science and technology. The producers actively invited audience members to participate by providing their own answers and even voting on panelists’ creativity during one segment. To facilitate this relationship and role of the audience, a virtual television studio was built to resemble those found in the physical world.
Figure 1. Pooky Amsterdam’s The 1st Question
A second example differs from The 1st Question in that it attempts to recreate a sports broadcast format. As seen in Figure 2, the ongoing series Giant Snail Races, produced by RacerX Gulwing, is part race and part obstacle course. In this show, Second Life users can participate as contestants that decorate their 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.
Figure 2. RacerX Gulwing’s Giant Snail Races
A third example replicates programming that would be recorded and edited prior to any audience involvement. In these genres, inhabitants participate by being the featured guests or as hired or voluntary actors. As seen in Figure 3, 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 users. The narrative follows various characters in the setting of Beaver Ridge, and has some distinctly comedic flair to its scripts, themes, and characterizations.
Figure 3. Lucy Eberhart’s The Desperate Housewives of Beaver Ridge
Reinhard and Amsterdam (2013) previously reported how VWTV allows for people to become positioned as ‘producers’ of television when they would normally only be in the position of ‘audience’ to television. That is, VWTV empowers people who have no connection to traditional television production to create their own television-as-content and thereby compete to have their voices heard. This type of empowerment has been seen across all social media platforms that involve and depend upon user-generated content. Furthermore, it appears that this empowerment allows for more interactive capabilities between television producers and audiences than currently seen in traditional television. These types of interactivities are defined as access interactivity, social interactivity, and content interactivity in the following analysis to clearly delineate the audience empowerment potential for that type of interactivity.
VWTV as Interactive TV
Access interactivity can be defined as content-control, or the ability to allow people to control their methods of consumption, or the whats, whens, wheres, and hows of consumption (Jensen, 2005). This type of interactivity concerns how the technology used for distributing and exhibiting television content provides the consumer with more control in accessing the content (Kim, 1999). Cesar and Chorianopoulos (2009) call this type of interactivity ‘content-control’ as it allows end-users more control over their selection and consumption processes. provide a useful taxonomy. Interactive television providers working with traditional television systems have primarily focused on offering users control via time-switching or video on demand (van Dijk & de Vos, 2001), beginning with devices like VCRs. The ability to access television programming through online providers, from network websites to subscription services like Netflix or Hulu, are further examples of how access interactivity has been the primary focus of creating an interactive television experience. Increasingly, television-as-content providers utilize Internet-based platforms as television-as-technology to enable the type of access interactivity that has been altering the economic models of traditional television for the past decade.
Within Second Life, VWTV agencies such as Treet TV and Metaverse TV served as both production houses and broadcast networks (Reinhard & Amsterdam, 2013) that act in ways similar to their traditional television analogs. As production houses, they assisted Second Life users in utilizing the virtual world for television production; they enabled users to become producers by providing access to the tools, skills, and personnel needed to produce television. This process was described by Claus Uriza, producer of PopVox:
…when Treet TV put this live up on the web, for when these shows actually happened, it was just a live camera crew who were recording it, and then there were a post-production [sic], which were solely done by Treet TV.
The same production process was seen in the Metaverse TV productions, according to Phelan Corrimal, producer of Inside the Avatar Studio: ‘Metaverse is doing a livestream at the time that we’re taping. And then the final version does go through a post-production before it goes up on a permanent basis.’ Additionally, as broadcasting agencies, they provided both Second Life users and Internet users the ability to access content at a time, place, and pace of their choosing.
Whether or not a VWTV production utilized one of their agencies, the series included in this project all allowed their audiences members some type of access interactivity synonymous with how traditional television utilizes the Internet for television-as-content distribution and exhibition. Shows that were livestreamed (which is synonymous with live broadcasting) could be viewed either in the virtual world (or inworld) through special plug-ins or exhibition areas, or via online video sharing platforms (such as YouTube) or specialized website hosting. Even if a show was livestreamed, it was also recorded and archived for later viewing via the online platforms, as discussed by MarkTwain White, producer of SailOn:
We had an audience show up for live. We had audiences in Second Life that would tune in on the SailOn on their home screens if they didn’t come over [sic]. And, of course, after they’re archived and they’re there for people to watch later.
Traditional television producers routinely posted episodes online, whether via a network’s website or via a streaming service. Thus, both traditional television and VWTV have been capitalizing on the server databases and broadband infrastructure of the Internet to provide consumers with more options for how and when they engage with television content. Similarities are also seen in how both have promoted the second type of interactivity.
Social interactivity can be defined as content sharing, or the ability for people to engage with other audience members during consumption of the series. This type has been alternatively called conversational and interpersonal interactivity (McMillan, 2002). Cesar and Chorianopoulos (2009) label it ‘content sharing’ as it focuses on synchronous or asynchronous communication with other end-users. Such social interaction has been done around television since the beginning, as people would gather in the same physical space to watch a program or discuss it afterwards. Sites such as YouTube.com offer a type of social interactivity, in that users can comment on the content and each other in a message board located in conjunction with the video; however, such comments occur asynchronously and usually without any direct link to any particular point of the content.
While much of this social interactivity occurs asynchronously, online technologies allow for more synchronous communication. With the advent of social media and mobile communication, television providers have experimented with utilizing technologies to facilitate social interaction across dispersed geographic locations, creating ‘virtual living rooms’ through instant messaging, chatrooms, blogs, microblogs, and other online networks and communities. For the most part, this approach utilizes a ‘second screen’ as television viewers use smartphones, tablets, or laptops to engage in this social interaction. Using social networks creates a backchannel for television programs, providing for social television and a co-viewing experience. Internet use is often described as a physically solitary experience (Poniewozick, 2009) while television viewing is typically considered a social activity (Chorianopoulous & Lekakos, 2008; Ryu & Wong 2008; Wood, 2007). This social interaction feature intends to reduce the feeling of watching television alone.
While traditional television relies on this second screen approach, VWTV series utilized the inworld feature of an integrated text chat to facilitate and encourage synchronous social interaction through the same screen as a program’s content. Having a backchannel feature operational during a live show could also connect Web-based audiences to Second Life audiences, thereby allowing for more commenting and more social interaction. According to Malburns Writer, producer of Crossworlds:
…there will be a lot of people who want to be there but can’t get inworld for one reason or another but can get to us on the Web. And with that we have a chat room there, in text, means that they can talk about the show while it’s happening.
Using the feature structured into the virtual world, VWTV producers provided their audiences with the ability to chat with one another while watching a live show, in a way that would not disrupt the production of the show as it would in traditional television studio audiences.
Figure 4. Beyer Seller’s Metanomics
Beyer Sellers, producer of the series Metanomics, referred to this backchannel structure as a ‘chatbridge.’ As seen in Figure 4, at each of the locations in Second Life where the series was exhibited, there were programs in the audience sections that acted as microphones. If the audience member sat her avatar within a specified range to this microphone, then anything she typed in her chat field will automatically be included as part of the backchannel. Individuals who watched the livestream at the series’ website could also log in and participate in the chatbridge. The host and the guests were also linked to the chatbridge to participate in the conversation. The producers used this chatbridge to distribute information, announcements, and advertisements before, during and after the show. Sellers said this backchannel created a “constructive cacophony” that enriched the viewing experience:
…the idea of constructive cacophony is that you can have more than one channel going at once. …if you only have one channel, you’re sort of forcing everyone to pay attention to the information that’s conveyed at the time it’s conveyed…and when it moves on, they have to move on.
This cacophony allowed for audience members to further explore the topics being discussed by the host and guests while still paying attention to what was being discussed. Thus, the cacophony was constructive as it could deepen the audience’s understanding of the topics being discussed. According to Sellers, the cacophony was constructive in another way:
Like if someone said something really good in chat, they would get it pasted to Skype so I’d be sure to see it and I could bring it up with the guest. But I’d also scan what was going on in chat so that often I would be saying “so I see so-and-so is reacting to what you just said, and what do you think of that?”
Thus, by engaging in this chatbridge, the audience’s feedback could impact the live show as it progressed. This second benefit to the cacophony will be discussed in the final analysis section, as it highlights the audience members’ ability to directly impact the content of the show.
Figure 5. Pooky Amsterdam’s The Dating Casino
The ability to multitask and attend to a backchannel while watching a live show was considered by some of the producers as one of the benefits of attending a VWTV production, whether in Second Life or through its livestreaming to a website. The backchannel provided for a communal experience that enhanced the experience of watching the television program. For this reason, then, numerous VWTV productions utilized the text chat feature of Second Life, such as Pooky Amsterdam’s The Dating Casino, as seen in Figure 5. Indeed, the ability to engage with fellow audience members without interfering with the show may be as important, or even more important, than being there for show’s guests. According to Bevan Whitfield, who worked on several productions, such as Metanomics:
Actually, sometimes I go to Metanomics and Inside the Avatar Studio, I spend more time checking out the audience and what they’re having to say and being part of the audience, than I do listening to the conversation. … You can listen to like the true content of the interview whenever you want.
Indeed, the fact that Second Life, a three-dimensional, graphic social network, includes this text chat feature was one of the primary features that distinguished VWTV from less interactive undertakings, such as watching a video on YouTube or listening to a podcast. The ability to experience social presence and interaction with other audience members became a key feature of many VWTV productions. According to Phelen Corrimal, it helped differentiate VWTV from other media engagings:
We can take advantage of all of the social networking aspects of what it is that we’re playing with from the toolbox and be able to give people something that is just realistic enough that I think they might relate to it a little bit more than if you tried to do this as a podcast.
This ability to engage with your fellow audience members was also what some producers considered as a difference between VWTV and traditional television; even when there is a studio audience in traditional television, they are dissuaded from engaging with one another. While second screen style social television allows for geographically dispersed audience members to engage with one another, it does not necessarily help those in the same viewing space, nor does it give the sense of attending a live show as these VWTV productions do. According to Lauren Weyland, producer of Lauren Live:
But in Second Life, you can go to a show, you can be in a chat with somebody, you can at the same time be Twittering, looking at your Facebook, talking with somebody on Skype and God knows how many more frickin’ things all at the same time. If you try to do that in live entertainment, first of all, they could throw you out of the place.
The producers seem to agree that audience members desire this type of social interactivity, as people like to be able to discuss what they are experiencing as they experience it. As Dousa Dragonash, producer of Metaverse Live, said: ‘People are very interactive. They love to shout out—you know, in text—what they’re thinking about what they’re seeing…’ Thus, a VWTV audience member could have both the pleasure of being at a live TV show while simultaneously enjoying the social interactivity commonly only found in a shared physical (i.e. living room, bar, etc.) or virtual space (e.g. second screen).
While traditional television’s social interactivity also exhibits the understanding of this desire, it requires external and additional devices and software to the television set, whereas Second Life is structured with this feature as inherent to its nature. With social interactivity as central to the construction of the virtual world, this type of engagement with television becomes so possible that it was almost a given circumstance of the VWTV experience. Thus, while both VWTV and traditional television have been producing similar methods for access interactivity, they do differ in how they offer social interactivity. This difference becomes more prominent when considering the last of the three interactivities.
Content interactivity can be defined as content editing, or the ability for audience members to impact the experience and/or the progression of the content. Cesar and Chorianopoulos (2009) categorize this type of interactivity as ‘content editing’ because it concerns the provision of authorship and creative capabilities to end-users. Content interactivity occurs when the delivery technology for television programming allows users to have some influence over the progression and/or creation of the content, before, during, or after its production (Cover, 2004; 2006; Ytreberg, 2009; Mcmillan, 2002). While not as prevalent as the previous two, some scholars have defined interactive television as requiring the content being made interactive (Jensen & Toscan, 1999; Richards, 2006; Ursu et al. 2008), either via a television set or via the Internet (Stewart, 1999).
Traditional television producers have attempted to create interactive television content through specific formats and features, such as weather, sports, talk shows, game shows, and polling (Kim, 1999). While these earlier experiments attempted to provide more individualized content interactivity (Kim, 1999; van Dijk & de Vos, 2001), many were abandoned, either due to the technological requirements necessary to enact them or to being less concerned with making the content react in real time to consumers’ input (Ursu et al. 2008). Some formats and features continue, to a lesser extent, or they appear more as gimmicks rather than as substantive additions. For example, reality competition shows such as American Idol request audience feedback to determine which contestants progress, but only at key points and rarely during live broadcasts; therefore, such productions only ‘pay lip service’ to interactivity (Cover, 2004; 2006).
Since the rise of digital games, with their increasingly complicated narratives, and the Internet, with its inherent content interactivity, there has been growing interest in learning from these interactive media how to produce interactive television content (Ekman & Lankoski, 2004; Ursu et al 2008). Experiments have involved the use of databases containing pre-recorded, scripted video and audio files that would respond to the requests of viewers (Hales, Pellimen & Castrén 2006; Ursu et al 2008). In these examples, the content interactivity offered was not a one-to-one ratio: the progression of the television content, whether mediated in real-time by a computer or a human, was not reactive to each single user. Instead, the content responded to the aggregated audience.
These experiments with content interaction focused more on the distribution and exhibition of the content, and how the audience could participate at that point. Other experiments have sought to understand how the audience could impact the production of the content in real time. In Japan, Saito and Murayama (2010) developed ADlivTV (Audience-Driven LIVe TV system) as a prototype broadcasting system where the audience could impact the outcome of a live broadcast through their requests. Through a system of text chat and icon selection, the audience could send requests for the camera operator on what to record and transmit during the live broadcast. Yet, such experiments were prototypes with small to middle-scale audience sizes. Along with the research of Ursu et al (2008), there continue to be issues in making true content interactivity as the size of the audience increases. CBS tried such an experiment in January, 2013, with a special episode of Hawaii Five-O, but the content interactivity only involved selecting the ending for the episode through online voting via the CBS website and Twitter (Reinhard, 2013). Scalability appears to represent a barrier for traditional television to produce more advanced content interactivity.
However, the chatbridge or backchannel, a key feature of the virtual world Second Life, does appear to permit and promote more content interactivity, because it encourages synchronous social interactivity. A number of VWTV productions employ the text chat feature to connect those in the audience with those on stage and behind the camera. As described by John Zhaoying, producer of Smarter Tech, backchannels allowed for a three-way conversation among the ‘audience on the one hand, the interviewer and then the subject, or subjects, in the case of panels.’ This three-way conversation required all parties to be multi-taskers, attending to not only what was said and shown but what was being typed. According Paisley Beebe, producer of Tonight Live with Paisley Beebe:
The people who are up on stage could see what the audience was saying and could react to that. So occasionally I would say something in chat and then somebody would say, yeah, but what about this? And if I thought that was a great question, then I would say to my guest, the audience has just mentioned this…
This type of engagement was not necessarily desired by all audience members, given the amount of attention it required, but its existence allowed for those who desired to participate at a level greater than either previous type of interactivity. Via this backchannel, the audience could experience content interactivity.
Figure 6. Pooky Amsterdam’s The 1st Question
The utilization of the backchannel to foster audience feedback occurred in different genres of VWTV. As a talk show, Metanomics connected the audience, both inworld and online, with the show’s producers and the episode’s guests, and encouraged the audience to ask questions and make comments that could be brought into the episode’s discussion. As seen in Figure 6, the quiz show The 1st Question put its audience into direct contact with the contestants, who would implore the audience to help them find the right answer, and one segment of the show required the audience to vote for one of the contestants. According to producer Pooky Amsterdam:
It means that everybody in the audience is texting away wildly and searching for stuff on Google and is fully engaged and it’s very exciting because the audience becomes a part of the show, through things that they’re feeding back through the text chat.
Because the producers, host, and guests were all part of the chatbridge, there existed the possibility that any audience member could impact the course of the episode.
In addition, this conversation could help ensure that the episode’s production went smoothly, as the audience could inform the producers of any glitches or lag issues affecting the show’s distribution and exhibition. In essence, the audience became de facto crew members, helping to ensure the successful production of each episode. Indeed, they could become actual crew members, as Saffia Windershins, producer of Designing Worlds, describes:
Some of the camera people were actually picked up because they were chatting in the back chat when we set up our own, and when they discovered we needed camera people, they went and got themselves trained and joined us as camera people. Because they thought it was fun. They had fun with it.
On other shows, such as sport shows, performance shows, and drama series, Second Life gave users who might have only been members of the audience the chance to participate beyond suggesting questions; they could become integrated content providers. Saffia Windershins described how she encourages her audiences to engage in “a kind of interactive game within the Happy Hunting program.” She explains that:
So we do things like, when the audience comes to the studio, we try and hide a gift somewhere in the studio so that they’ll go and find it afterwards. We encourage them to get involved through the web – go and look at a website and we’ll help you because of all the hunts we’ve discussed, so that they will then go out and do hunting.
The chatbridge feature, and the interaction between the producers and the audience, helped foster a sense of community that furthered the creativity of the productions (Reinhard & Amsterdam, 2013). However, Second Life’s restriction on the number of users (i.e. 100) who can access an area limited how many people could attend a live production; according to RacerX Gulwing, avatars were often turned away from being in the Giant Snail Races because too many people arrived to participate.
As with the ability to have social interactivity, using this same technological feature to permit and promote a type of synchronous content interactivity was seen as one of the benefits of VWTV. Because the audience knew their participation in the backchannel could impact the live episode, they were more likely to watch a live show and engage in this text chatting. For some producers, such as Slim Warrior of Amped Up!, this helped to differentiate VWTV from other media offerings:
We can all sit and watch TV and be very passive and have no involvement whatsoever, but for me it’s an essential part of being able to talk with other people. That their fans have a chance to have some input, to be able to ask questions, to make points that they feel might be relevant and to allow that musician or that performer to respond, because at other times doing a show, they may not be able to do that. … Otherwise we might just as well close our eyes and listen to a podcast and have no involvement with it whatsoever.
While traditional television appears interested in fostering community and fan involvement, such involvement often happens asynchronously with the series’ broadcasting. However, if more live broadcasts could integrate backchannels, then higher levels of social interactivity and content interactivity could result in the same genres as those seen in VWTV.
Of course, neither traditional television nor these VWTV programs created the type of synchronous content interactivity that would produce an individualized experience similar to playing digital games. Yet, the user-generated nature of Second Life did allow anyone with the interest and dedication to become television producers; this ability can be seen as the ultimate form of content interactivity, where more people are able to interact with a television-as-technology to produce television-as-content. As television production goes more online, then perhaps this type of content interactivity will become more common, and virtual worlds have been leading the way with VWTV and machinima productions.
For the most part, VWTV remediates the access and social interactivities that have been added to traditional television over the past several decades. 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 experimenting with through the use of social media and mobile technologies. Furthermore, many productions remediate traditional television genre formats that promote the duality of audience/participant. These programs tend to be live shows, replicating studio audience formats from traditional television that allow for questions from the audience or encourage the audience to play along.
Indeed, VWTV allows for more attempts at content interactivity than currently available in traditional television. However, the content interactivity cannot be considered as equitable with the truest form seen in digital games due to the lack of a one-to-one action-reaction ratio. Instead, the producers select only certain questions or suggestions from the audience to incorporate into the live content. In digital games individuals playing alone or in groups have the one-on-one relationship as their actions directly influence the game’s progression. Game players experience having their actions matter for the progress of the game’s content; such subjective experience is not possible with VWTV. Thus, VWTV remediates traditional content genres like talk shows or game shows where only those viewers chosen by the producers can have an impact. This interactivity would be akin to Richards’ (2006) discussion of processor interactivity, where the consumer is given the opportunity to contribute but only under prescribed conditions. Thus, many of these productions reflect the tension Cover (2004; 2006) describes as the problems involved in overcoming the author-text-audience relationship. With VWTV, the lack of the one-to-one ratio can be seen as paying lip service to the desires of consumers to participate in the content.
The truest synchronous content interactivity occurs with the ability to enter the television production process as these Second Life users produce their own television programs. They are no longer simply positioned as an audience to television-as-content or television-as-technology; they are able to change their position to producer of television-as-content via a new form of television-as-technology (Reinhard & Amsterdam, 2013). In addition to being able to become producers, 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. A person’s dreams of being part of a television production, while perhaps not possible when considering traditional television, can be realized with VWTV. Virtual worlds, then, promotes the construction of interactive television through the ability to allow anyone to become involved in television production.
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 interviewed in this study and their audiences 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. All of these functions are interconnected, especially on the shows that have audiences participate in the production of each episode. The shows’ audiences have the ability to choose what they watch and where, which can include being a part of a live studio audience, even if they are not geographically proximate to production. If they are virtually present at the production of the episode, they can utilize the text chat feature to talk with other audience members, as if they were all sharing a communal space away from the production. Sometimes those discussions can even include the chance to inform the production as it occurs, or even become part of the production later. Thus, VWTV involves the refashioning of the technologies of distribution and exhibition of content so as to promote more interactivity, be it access, social, or content.
To date, traditional television has not been able to replicate these interconnected interactivities to the same extent. It may be that the virtual world technology is necessary for this confluence of interactivities to occur: the interactivity and user-generated nature of a social medium combined with the three-dimensional graphic nature of the virtual world provides the spaces and tools for such content production. While they are creating a dialogic broadcasting model, it is only with a limited studio audience, which is further limited to Second Life users and perhaps online users. For the medium to expand, there would have to be easier access to the live production and more widespread adoption of the technologies involved in the production and distribution. The VWTV programs in this analysis indicate that there exists 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.
In conclusion, the virtual world appears to permit and promote the ability for those individuals and communities who exist outside of traditional television to produce and distribute television content that challenges the dominance of traditional television by being an alternative in television consumption. By giving those who would traditionally only function as 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 results from its ability to also permit and promote more and varied types of interactivity than currently found in traditional television, at highly reduces costs and with less limits as to what the show can offer given the lack of physical restraints on creativity in virtual worlds. While the dream of interactive television has not been fully realized in VWTV, perhaps it is showing another step toward the achievement of that goal and the further evolution of television.
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