TV Provera: interactive community TV

Tim Burns

This article arises from an ongoing struggle to realise a series of works that address notions of low tech interactive TV which started for me in the USA in the early 90s with The Operators, a cable show about a bunch of answering service operators staving off unemployment caused by the advent of the answering machine. The show was designed to be interactive and contextually narrative—that is, the interactive element was in keeping with the narrative drama, so viewers interacted in real time via telephones in a drama about telephone operators. After considering the resurgence of talk-back radio occurring at the time, and influenced by early live television as personified in the US by Ernie Kovacs, I wrote an outline for a live, low-budget TV series which became the manifesto for Community TV that I delivered to CTV in Perth in 1995.

In 1998, I took a job in the Media Department at Edith Cowan University developing a practical teaching program utilising the instigation of community and educational TV in Western Australia as a focus. In the first 6 months of operation my students and I produced 42 hours of TV and Artoffical, an arts program which won the CBAA award for infotainment that year. However, my recommendations for live and interactive TV fell on deaf ears at the university and the TV consortium set up to manage education and community interests.

In 2001, I was able to present THIS IS I.T. (with the help of the Festival of Perth Fringe and CTV) to illustrate the power of interactivity. I used a small studio set up for the weather at Channel 31. Although the virtually content-less interactive show was unpopular with the TV station and the cultural elite of Perth, Telstra phone records showed it had over a million viewers and over 1000 calls an hour during the 4 weeks of broadcast. Ironically, it proved to be the most watched production in the festival. It was only a gesture towards our vision for community interaction but it was as far as we got. After Channel 31 shut down the show, SBS bandied around a narrative version with a budget and upgraded computer interactivity, about a transparent TV show. Eventually they refused to develop it even with the financial support of ScreenWest. Comments included that it was another retro stereotypical office drama (such as The Office). Six months later the office drama 24/7 emerged on SBS with its non-contextual interactivity (ie via email and not inside the characters’ real time).

The Australian Film Commission then granted me production money (the first time it was given for a program produced on Community TV) if Channel 31 would schedule the show in Melbourne. After 6 months, with sponsors in place and on the point of signing a development contract, Channel 31 Melbourne refused to program the show.

One reason for the sector’s reluctance to embrace interactivity is an irrational fear of people saying the wrong thing or using ‘inappropriate language’ on air. The possibilities of slander and defamation charges have created a climate where self-censorship dominates. However, the ABA guidelines are quite liberal in relation to these issues, with different standards for different time slots and an understanding of the differences between factual, fictional and satirical programs. In my opinion, self-censorship has become so pervasive that there is now virtually no politics, social comment or discussion of serious community issues in community media—and this is without even considering the possibility of live interactivity with the public. Yet the on-air surveys that we did on both TV and radio indicate that this is what the ‘community’ wants. They want talkback and interactivity. The ABC realised this and their ratings on radio have increased as a result. My local community radio station plays music without any talk, commentary or discussion, something you could do on your CD player at home. Even the 2003 CBAA conference of community presenters and produces at Surfers Paradise couldn’t take the idea of talkback or interactivity seriously in their ‘innovation’ think tank sessions. Yet another demonstration of how creatively conservative we are in this country.

The other big stick waved about by cultural bureaucrats is ‘quality’ and the mantra of ‘good sound, picture, cuts and always use a tripod’. It must look like regular TV. The word ‘quality’ is used to cover anything programmer executives don’t like—consequently all programs now look the same. There is very little stepping outside the structures imposed by commercial stations. The art world, while developing all sorts of time-based video works, has not embraced nor been embraced by Community TV. If ‘form follows function’ then a new form of broadcasting needs to be developed to provide a continuing function for Community TV. And developing true television interactivity is a way to achieve this.

Manifesto for CTV, 1995

1. That the Broadcaster has facilities for live transmission of television from studio facilities.

2. That it incorporate interactive facilities such as telephone and computer interface for community participation and comment.

3. That it operates on a non-professional, hands-on presentation system based on a radio station set up, allowing a community group to come in with minimal technical expertise and present a show.

3A. That it emulate the talkback radio format with interchangeable studios, even supporting the technical hierarchy of sound over picture.

4. That the content be prioritised over form. This is not an aesthetic position, but rather a political one, in which aesthetics will develop in unexpected ways inside the formal constraints as familiarity and provera (poor) methodologies are celebrated and demonstrated.

5. That it experiments with low end available technologies like computers and online systems to create interactivity and participation.

6. That there is no “NO”, it is “YES, but what about…” followed by a positive suggestion.

Tim Burns is a Perth-based artist and writer.

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 21

© Tim Burns; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2005