American Way

by Ken Parish Perkins

HUDDLED AROUND A 42-INCH MONITOR like kids gawking at the latest iPod, Ball State University students are eager to see what the future of television looks like. The group began gathering at 8:30 that morning to hash out the day’s stories for a daily newscast that’s aired on Indiana Public Television, and the spirited discussion in their news meeting is the only thing that closely resembles what we might consider traditional television news.

HERE IN THE SCHOOL’S COLLEGE of Communication, Information, and Media, students and professors alike might be tempted to call the linear broadcasts we currently see on ABC, CBS, and NBC a bit, well, archaic.

What’s different about this five-minute newscast, aside from its being produced largely by students, is how it lets viewers casually troll for information, much like the Internet does.

As the anchor, Chris Bavender, a slender woman in a red pantsuit, delivers a story on problems having to do with overdue toxicology reports in Muncie, Indiana, instructor Vinayak Tanksale stands in front of the screen, using a remote control to show how viewers can learn more about the effects of alcohol in the bloodstream merely by clicking on a button at the bottom of the screen. A click from Tanksale sends Bavender to the lower-right-hand corner of the screen, and up pop several graphics that explain how alcohol levels are tabulated and that illuminate the tragic story of how a Ball State student (who may or may not have been drinking) rammed his vehicle headfirst into a minivan.

This is the future.

Last year’s Pew Internet & American Life Project study cited that more than 50 million Americans get the bulk of their news online. This information, paired with the fact that people are now looking beyond immobile TV sets for entertainment, to laptops, iPods, game players, and PDAs, is indication enough that the consumers expected to sustain TV news tomorrow won’t want to watch it — they’ll want to use it.

“Interactivity is definitely the future — across the board,” says Timothy Pollard, the Ball State associate professor of telecommunications who last year began offering an interactive-television class, which was met with both celebrated glee and downcast skepticism (oftentimes from his own colleagues). “These kids are trained now to multitask. They have their headphones on, their iPods, cable and satellite hookups, a DVD playing, video games at the ready, and all the while, they’re text messaging and grabbing for their cell phones with Facebook open. They need that kind of stimulation. They’re getting away from TV because it’s a one-way experience. You need to keep their eyeballs there. And the way you do that is let them interact with it.”

Thus, Ball State initiated the bold move of offering a semester-long course that’s designed to head down the ambitious path we all know exists but are hesitant to tread because it looks so unpaved, so bumpy — so unknown.

INSTEAD OF DELIVERING the news as we have come to know it, with an anchor introducing a story and then handing it off to a reporter, an interactive newscast allows the viewers, or, better stated, the users, to pick and choose the topics that most interest them, creating a kind of news à la carte.

What the viewer sees is the typical anchor filling up the screen — but accompanied on the left, on the right, and at the bottom by visual links to items such as the day’s top story, the national news, the local news, sports, the weather, stocks, and story sidebars that are filled with graphics. If you’ve perused the web, you have a good idea of what this looks like.

Viewers use a remote control to click on the links and buttons that are lined up alongside the video of the anchor or reporter. They also have the ability to return to the main newscast and watch more, continuing right from where they left off. Even the ticker along the bottom of the screen can be paused, rewound, and fast-forwarded; it can also be brought up as a series of blurbs in order to give a viewer time to see all of them at once.

Like the Internet, this sort of interactive navigation is designed to give consumers what they want, when they want it. It’s also designed to develop futuristic-media students, who around Ball State are referred to as hybrids, because they are a sort of bionic student built from parts of journalism (including journalism graphics, broadcasting, and telecommunications) and computer science. They’re often on the scene of a story along with the field reporters from NewsLink Indiana, the university’s broadcast news service and convergence program for which students spend a semester working full-time on a daily newscast that’s aired on public broadcaster WIPB.

Tanksale, who has a master’s degree in computer science from Purdue University and previously worked at Microsoft, is one of the three instructors for the interactive-television course, which is filled with a kind of all-star lineup of 24 (or so) students, handpicked from various majors. Jennifer George-Palilonis, a former Detroit Free Press and Chicago Sun-Times staffer, coordinates the journalism-graphics sequence at the school and is another of the instructors. The third is telecommunications expert John Dailey, who, like Pollard, once worked for CNN. They all feel like scientists trying out a new experiment, correcting themselves as they go.

Dailey remembers firsthand the pounding CNN Headline News took when the 24-hour news network thought it, too, had figured out the future of television news: It dressed up its looping segments with tickers and so many modules that viewers went screaming from the screen.

“The feedback was awful,” Dailey recalls. “People were turning away in droves, saying it was too much information on-screen. They had three crawls going. The design aspect was dizzying.”

Here, viewers customize. They can take away, add, or, if they like, watch a linear newscast, with just the anchor. “On CNN, we gave them no choice,” Dailey says. “With this, the viewer is saying, ‘I want this’ or ‘I don’t want that.’?”

What the students are doing, says George-Palilonis, a Ball State journalism grad, is “taking the strengths of a newspaper, which are depth of coverage and breadth of coverage, and, with an expertise in those areas, doing what broadcast isn’t able to cover in a one-minute package. And I think it really strengthens broadcast and the ability to tell a well-rounded story.”

She continues: “It doesn’t change the fact that all you have is minutes, but what it does is uses a new interface and adds an interactive component that gives you more in the frame of that 30-minute newscast. If you want to keep watching after the news is off, you can, because that footage lives.”

Exactly how Ball State’s bold foray into the future of television is being played out off campus is hard to tell. More than a year ago, the instructors presented the findings of their first interactive class to the Radio-Television News Directors Association convention in Las Vegas to mostly amused, curious attendees. The trade magazine Television Week published a story for a media-and-technology special report under the headline “Future of TV News Taking Shape as Viewership Drops,” as though the concept was a kind of cute phenomenon.

The problem is, it’s tough to take interactivity seriously when the technology infrastructure is not in place to make it doable now. In order for interactivity to work, you need to have software that people can develop and distribute to a mass audience. The people who control that software, and the hardware, are your individual cable operators and satellite companies — and they are all on different systems.

Plus, not knowing what this seismic shift to interactive television means is unnerving to some. With TV and the Internet blending more each year, this marriage will mean major changes for companies that distribute content, for advertisers trying to reach consumers, and for viewers.

“As we go across multiple platforms, it’s not a broadcast network or a cable network anymore; it’s a network of people,” says Albert Cheng, executive vice president of digital media for Disney–ABC Television Group. “What we’re seeing is sort of an increased amount of social connectivity — maybe based around shows, maybe based around brands that have now become what I call participatory entertainment.”

INDEED, THE NETWORKS are already making prime-time shows (Desperate Housewives and Lost, among others) available online, either on their own sites or through services such as iTunes. Some have even created programs exclusively for the web, a step that is already making the Internet a proving ground for television shows.

When Ball State sought funding ($25,000 of which came in the form of a grant from the Discovery Group, a local foundation made up of community women) to support its interactive endeavor, it didn’t need a fistful of studies, even though studies are readily available.

It’s clear that we’re spending as much time in front of the computer as we are in front of the TV. Adults spend about 14 hours a week watching the tube and another 14 online, compared with the 11 hours they spent watching TV and the 10 they spent online two years ago, according to JupiterResearch, which analyzes Internet use. College-age consumers average about 10 hours a week online, two hours more than they spend watching TV. Many students interviewed for this story said that they didn’t have a TV in their dorm room but that they couldn’t function without a laptop.

“I kind of passively watch the news,” says Austin Arnett, a senior computer science major who is part of the interactive team. “Often I’m trying to catch the first 30 seconds, to get teasers. If anything interests me, I’ll go to Google News and be done with it.”

Suzanne Plesha, assistant director and communications officer of the Center for Media Design, the campus-based, independent-research think tank that used portions of a $20 million grant to help fund this pursuit, says the question is how to make things more appealing for truly digital natives, or young media consumers.

“They are so engrossed in all this,” she says. “They have totally different flight patterns surrounding digital usage. We’re the immigrants who are popping into the digital world midway through life. When we make judgments of what will be appealing to these populations, we’re wrong most of the time. They’re working at the ground level. They know what they want, where it’s going. They know the ticker thing was bothering them. And they were going to find the solution.”

Of course, not everyone is so sure that the solution of interactivity is better, even right here at Ball State. While Steve Bell, a professor at Ball State and the longtime ABC anchor who filed the first live satellite report from Vietnam, applauds interactivity (“It’s just another media revolution I’ll have to live through,” he quips), he has his concerns.

“If you’re not careful, the audience will set the whole agenda,” he warns. “People are only getting what they want. Well, you don’t go to the doctor to only hear what you want. You don’t go to a lawyer to only hear what you want. The role of the journalist has always been to not only provide people what they want and need but provide people with what they didn’t know they wanted. But you, as the professional, determine they do need to know about it. And if you present it in the right way, they will come to know and appreciate this editorial service you’re providing for them.”

To others, like Mark Glaser, who writes extensively about how the Internet affects media, the biggest shift can be seen in the mind-set of the journalist.

“There’s the old way of your being the bringer of the truth. You’re the one who said this is the way it is — whether you go on TV and say it or you write it,” says Glaser. “I think what’s happening now is it’s being democratized. The journalist has to think more like, ‘This is how I see it, this is what I’ve come up with, what do you think, what can you add to this?’ It’s more of a collaboration and less of ‘this is the answer.’ There are a lot of answers, and it’s about coming up with what the best one is. It’s kind of scary for a lot of people to deal with that.”

Glaser applauds Ball State but wonders if viewers actually prefer TV to be a one-way experience. Pollard doesn’t think they do. He was at CNN during what he calls its Chicken Little news days, “when no one knew what we were doing.” It simply wasn’t what everyone was used to.

None of this fazes the Ball State instructors. They have the blessing of their dean, Roger Lavery, who is overseeing a new $21 million facility that will expand the college’s reach. Lavery said having a product in hand is enough to douse doubters.

Watching as students buzzed around him during a visit to the TV studio, Bell looked both proud and perplexed.

“Frankly, this is way beyond me,” says Bell, who retired a few weeks after this interview. “I have no idea how it’s going to play out. The simple fact is, we can’t stop the viewer from being involved. It’s happening, whether we like it or not.”