The History of Interactive Television

Rules of Engagement

I saw a documentary the other day, all about "interactive TV” and how viewers can now engage with the programming on their screen by way of a bunch of futuristic, space-age, high-tech gadgets. They acted like it was some kind of big new thing – but I've got news for them. I've been "engaging” with my TV for decades.

I can't help it. It's in my blood. Way back when I was just a little girl, whenever we went to my grandmother's house for Thanksgiving, her brothers would watch football games on the tiny little television way back in her den. I was kind of scared to go in there, partly because the heavy drapes were closed and the room was darkened to make it easier to see the snowy picture on the screen, but mainly I was terrified of all the yelling. Being avid sports fans, Uncle Tut and Uncle Guy were self-appointed armchair coaches whose primary job was to jump up and holler "Git ‘im! Git ‘im!” every time the other team took off with the ball. As far as I could tell, those poor players couldn't do anything right, and it was up to my great-uncles to let them know it.

My aunt was also an involved viewer. Long before Skype came along, she was carrying on lengthy, heartfelt conversations with her soap opera characters, as if they could literally hear her. Usually the exchange went something like this:

On-screen Dorothea: "Oh Herbert, I just wish I could be sure that you really loved me. Tell me, darling, when you look in my eyes, what do you see?”

Aunt Ella: "Listen, honey, he doesn't see a darn thing except your family's bank account – and crow's feet!”

Before long I was continuing the tradition myself – first by shouting out my response to the question "Hey kids, what time is it?” ("IT'S HOWDY DOODY TIME!!!”) and later by following the bouncing ball in "Sing along with Mitch”. I did my fair share of swooning over Davy Jones on "The Monkees” too, but despite the fact that I once literally kissed the television screen, our romance never really got off the ground.

Fortunately for me, a few years later I did manage to snag a real live feller, and wouldn't you know it? He was a TV-talker too! Politics are what really press his hot buttons, and he's a complete cable news junkie. For the most part, he watches the kind of programs where they're preachin' to his choir, so he's more or less just agreeing with the pundits on the screen. But now and then, if I'm feeling a bit bored, I'll switch over to a channel where the issues are approached from the total opposite side, simply because it's so much fun to watch him explode. Man, he really gives those guys what for! It's almost as exciting as Uncle Tut yelling "Git ‘im! Git ‘im!”

As for me personally, I have a wide range of shows that require my participation. Take "Jeopardy” for instance. Now I don't claim to be a brainiac or anything like that, but I do try to blurt out the right response before anybody else. I'm also quick to solve the puzzle on "Wheel of Fortune” too, which frequently leads me to yell at the contestants "Don't buy another vowel, stupid! It's ‘Murder on the Orient Express'!”

Whenever female news anchors and talk show hosts make a poor choice in hairstyles or fashion I feel compelled to point it out to them; I verbally challenge ridiculous claims on weight loss commercials; and nobody, but nobody gets by with improper grammar when I'm around!

Lately though, I've been weighing in on something that has even me scratching my head. I'm referring of course to cooking shows. I know it's weird, and you're probably thinking there's nothing anyone could possibly say to a TV chef, and yet somehow I manage to maintain a running commentary. She struggles to spoon tomato paste out of a can and I inform her it would be easier to open both ends and push it out. He touts cooking bacon in the oven because you don't have "all that grease spattering onto the stove” and I retort, "Yeah, now it's spattering all over your oven.” They suggest a good way to roll out pie dough. I tell them a better one.

In other words, I'm pretty outspoken with these characters, but only because I know it's a one-way communication, which is exactly why I hope true "interactive TV” is never fully developed. Once those folks can actually hear what I'm saying, knowing me, my timidity will kick in and I'll never open my mouth again.

Until then, though, I shall continue to speak my mind. Case in point: I think Hillary's hair is getting way too long, and every time I see her on television, well I'm just going to come right out and tell her so.

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