Interactive Digital Television (IDTV) and Civic Intelligence

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M. Asim Kazancigil
University of Milan

Since the introduction of mechanical television in 1928 and electronic television in 1936, TV broadcasts have largely been mere monologues in which the “consumer” (receiver) has been offered programs to choose from, without being able to actively participate in the content. The only options for active participation in a program or live debate – even those with a high degree of significance for the society as a whole – were, until recently, live phone connections, SMS messaging, internet messaging or e-mail. Interactive Digital Television (IDTV) has opened new frontiers and will enable any person to actively participate in TV programs and live debates on key issues that are important for the society as a whole; transforming a formerly passive device into an active medium for spreading information and opinion. But like every new scientific development, the introduction of IDTV has brought new problems. The year 2012 is set by the European Union as the ultimate deadline for passing from analog to digital TV broadcasting, but many EU member states haven't allocated enough funds for restructuring their infrastructure, nor have they prepared new laws which will become necessary due to the increased amount of interaction, e.g. potential privacy violation and harassment during live broadcasts. The necessity of having to purchase new TV sets that are compatible with IDTV broadcasts may also become an economic burden for the citizens, and create an enormous amount of "junk TV sets" which will potentially cause pollution due to the amount of toxic material they contain. Likewise, the necessity to purchase "set-top-boxes" for being able to receive the digital broadcasts will be another government-enforced economic obligation for the citizens. A related problem is the lack of an internationally accepted standard for the Digital Video Broadcasting Multimedia Home Platform (DVB-MHP), an open middleware system which enables the reception and execution of interactive, Java-based applications on a TV set. DVB-MHP applications come in two methods: The DVB-HTML and the relatively more popular and easier to use DVB-J (DVB-Java). Since they may require different set-top-boxes (though the latest models are generally compatible with both systems) switching from one IDTV network to the other may also require to purchase a new set top box. As a result of the diffusion of IDTV, T-Government applications will become widespread, but as they evolve and become more advanced, more sophisticated set-top-boxes will be required; which is expensive for the citizens to constantly change and will thus slow down the development process below its potential speed. IDTV will essentially be different than "Internet Television", a model which has already been tried but failed in the past due to its many complexities, such as having to use a keyboard-like remote control, which was confusing and inconvenient for most users. IDTV should retain a more simple interface and more simple interaction tools for appealing to the needs and capabilities of a wider segment of users, including children and the elderly, and not attempt to become “another internet.”


With the advent of IDTV, or Digital Interactive Television, the possibilities for active public participation in TV broadcasts and programs have practically become infinite, and will continuously grow with the development of new interfaces, software and hardware that will enable an increased degree of social interaction. NGOs and common citizens will be able to spread their voice and make a change in world matters more thoroughly; particularly in areas that are of concern for any living individual, such as political decisions on environmental issues, social welfare services, education, the right to access information and the freedom of expression.


The internet has provided the ideal models for “public participation projects in spreading information” to be developed for future IDTV broadcasts, such as Wikipedia and YouTube. At this point, the question may be “why focus on television when the internet provides similar interaction possibilities?” The answer is that television reaches a far larger audience, and is the place where most of the live debates between politicians and other policy makers in discussing important issues take place. It is the public arena with the largest “reach” to make a point or a statement. Most people who return back home from work prefer to watch prime time television instead of surfing the internet, which is mostly done in office hours. Another advantage of television is that it’s a “one time only” purchase, and TV devices are generally more affordable and widely diffused than computers. TV users may also choose to become members in expensive multi-channel satellite, cable or digital terrestrial networks, which currently provide the only available degree of interactivity in many countries today, but free public IDTV broadcasters are also starting to provide basic interactive services, such as video on demand and T-Government. These services will strongly expand in the near future, since all E.U. member states are obliged to go “all digital” by the end of 2012, when analog television broadcasts in these countries will cease to exist. The same change will eventually take place in the United States, Japan and the rest of the world over the years.

In order to optimally use the capabilities provided by IDTV, governments and municipalities, as well as NGOs and civic intelligence groups should establish close connections with such broadcasters (e.g. sponsoring them and using several hours of their daily broadcasting schedule in return, similar to the PBS in the United States.) This will provide them the means to reach their followers and especially for spreading their views to people who were not already aware of their activities, using the larger “reach” potential of television in comparison to the internet, which almost exclusively leads us to the websites that we are already interested in, through the data that we insert to the search engines. Zapping between TV channels is a more “randomized” act and can lead us to a program which we didn’t have in mind, whereas surfing the internet through search engines has a lesser probability of diverting us to a topic that’s different from the one which we had in mind. The interactive applications of IDTV will enable such organizations to receive feedback from their viewers, or to recruit new followers for spreading their cause. In a live TV debate between politicians, ordinary citizens should also be able to participate in the discussion, through applications similar to (but more advanced than) the use of Webcam in VOIP programs such as Skype. The only problem in such an application might be the temptation of vandalism, i.e. to make annoying or insulting comments under anonymous names during live broadcasts; but this problem can be solved with a strict identification method which will make anonymity impossible and restrain the users from such possible temptations, even though the system will probably need to be constantly monitored.


In less than five years until 2012, computer scientists throughout the world and particularly in the European Union which has set this date as the ultimate deadline for going "all digital" (a legislative enforcement that will inevitably become a catalyst for change in other parts of the world as well, particularly in North America and East Asia) will have to develop the necessary electronic and telecommunications infrastructure, hardware devices, interfaces, software and DVB-MHP applications for enabling the creation of a “multi-channeled, multi-functional and highly interactive” television, and to identify the problems which can be associated with such a development in the future. In the same time, economists assigned by broadcasting corporations must make thorough business plans for determining the feasibility of the new IDTV channels and their related applications (which audience segment they are planning to reach, which educational institutions or NGOs will be willing to sponsor their programs, which organizations will pay the channel for obtaining their own daily broadcasting hours in order to spread their voice and receive interactive feedback from the public, etc.) Similarly, lawmakers must take into consideration the legal requirements that will arise from the widespread diffusion of a highly interactive digital television. They must determine how the existing laws should be modified or regulated in order to cope with the new challenges, or how new laws should be made if the existing ones do not fully meet the needs. In this process, civic intelligence organizations must become aware of the importance of this new development and provide support for the IDTV channels, both in terms of finance and in terms of know-how, as IDTV will provide the ultimate medium for challenging the policy makers in live debates, and giving practically any citizen the ability to interact with a Mayor, Governor, Minister, Prime Minister or President, and give them suggestions or feedback on key issues of interest for the society as a whole. Likewise, the governments should financially support the citizens for renewing their equipment such as IDTV compatible TV sets and set-top-boxes, as the ability to receive adequate information is an important universal human right.

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