Television On: Interactivity and the Future of the Image

By Nick Haeffner and Chris Lane


In July 2007 John Wyver (owner of British television cultural production company Illuminations) met with us to speak about a recently completed project which aims to develop new forms of interactive television. Illuminations was commissioned to produce an interactive arts programme as part of a European Union funded project called NM2, which is working with various genres including drama, sports, news and comedy.

Illuminations chose to look at the arts in Elizabethan England. Entitled The Golden Age, the interactive documentary lasts up to forty minutes but draws on twenty hours of possible content. As the program plays, keywords linked to different aspects of the narrative appear on the screen. Without pausing the video, the audience is invited to provide information about their preferences using their remote control’s OK button. Each keyword presented can be given a score between one and three to indicate the viewer’s level of interest. The programme structure then reorganises itself in limitless possible ways behind the scenes, and the programme continues to be seamlessly played without the intervention of menus or choice screens.

It is this aspect that distinguishes NM2 from the kinds of interactive moving image experience offered by DVD and online video, where the mechanisms for making choices and the transitions between them frequently disrupt the diegesis. Throughout the programme the viewer can refine their expressions of interest via ongoing keyword scoring.

The interview aimed to raise questions about the place of conventional television in a media environment which appears to be increasingly concerned with user engagement, mobile content and internet distribution. Excerpts are presented below – and the interview is available in full as a podcast and transcript on the Vertigo website.

Nick Haeffner: Since you started the NM2 project the whole landscape has been shifting, with the rise of user-generated content (UGC). What do you think about the aesthetics of such content and the power relationship between you and the users?

John Wyver: There’s no doubt that UGC has become much more important since we started working on the project. I watch a lot of stuff on YouTube but what do I watch on YouTube? I watch conventional media chopped up and made available to me in a very convenient way. So, it is fantastically good if you’ve missed a particular media moment. Do I personally look at the stuff that people make? No. Not at all. That may be absolutely my conservatism but I am interested in a quite traditional, structured, properly resourced, properly created media, which has value – in a sense – beyond the social. A lot of the content on YouTube seems to me to be the focus for a certain kind of social exchange but I’m not sure it’s for much more than that.


I find it ironic that I’ve spent a long time trying to work in television to extend its forms, to make experimental forms and actually what I now want to do is hold onto in some ways quite conventional forms. Part of the impetus for The Golden Age is wanting to combine something of the aesthetics and the value of new media with the involvement and direction of the user but within a framework which is structured by knowledge and skill and the added value that people have contributed.

NH: Riding the current wave must be a good way to survive in a tough business but there’s also the idea that has come up in the philosophy of Alain Badiou which says that unshakeable commitment is the truly ethical act in a world which has become corrupted by pragmatism.

JW: That’s very interesting. Certainly, I find my aesthetic and my concerns highly conservative, highly traditional and what I struggle with in industry discussions and elsewhere is the characterisation of that position as elitist. For me this is a very important point because, if you hold onto certain intellectual or aesthetic values, it has been very easy for the industry to characterise that position as one which has no respect for the audience. So a lot of what has happened to the BBC has been justified in terms of needing to speak to the whole audience and not just to an educated, metropolitan, Southern, middle class, white elite. And working against that position has allowed them to marginalise and sometimes ignore what has been central to Public Service broadcasting in the past.

Chris Lane: It’s often claimed that there is a difference between the mode of audience identification in television and new media. I wonder whether the medium that you are creating changes those relationships.

JW: In a certain way I’m very keen that it does feel like television – but television that you are shifting the shape of – that it doesn’t feel profoundly different from sitting there with a remote in your hand and that your relationship and your sense of connection isn’t changed or disturbed – certainly not as it is when you are driving an avatar through a 3D world.

NH: I also wonder how wedded you are to television as a medium. There is talk of the three-screen model, of the TV, PC and the mobile phone – but it seems that it is TV that you have most invested in.

: Yes I think I do. Perhaps some of the other NM2 projects are more appropriate for other forms of delivery and use – but it depends what you mean by television. I am committed to relatively large screens, good picture quality, some kind of primarily fixed location of the screen and the user.

NH: Mobile phones and computer screens have a qualitatively different mode of attention to television. Does that relate to what you talking about?

JW: Maybe one’s holding on to a mode of attention with TV that is illusory - that is in decline or, if not in decline, at a moment when it is being supplemented with other modes or content - but I would still like to think that there is a place for that traditional mode. Like a lot of companies we faced a real set of issues about how we survive, what we do, where we fit into the industry and so forth. Part of this, not simply surviving, but finding a place for what we do has just been about doing stuff and in a way which broadcasting has had no concern with at all, that’s fine. If we can survive just doing stuff, that’s ok and it’s a different kind of independence from the way we set out and it’s certainly a different kind of independence from the way in which most production companies construct their work now.

CL: Has the project led in any way to realising viable models for the creation of seamless interactive television content?

JW: I can’t see it at the moment. I think that depends on the way that broadband, IP and television develops because it may be that online systems will want premium projects which are significantly more than the redelivery of already produced and played linear media – but that market isn’t nearly developed enough to know that yet. About ten years ago we did a lot of work alongside the series we made for BBC2 called The Net. We built some very elaborate projects with avatars in graphical 3D worlds. When the project came to an end I couldn’t see a way for us as a small company to develop that – so we stopped doing it. This isn’t to say that we could have become Second Life – I don’t believe that. But seven years on, a lot of that work is now what Second Life is working with in a very powerful and seemingly commercial context. The fact that we can’t envisage how to develop this now doesn’t mean that it can’t be developed in a commercial context in the future. It’s not a road to making lots of money – but neither is running a production company that specialises in the Arts!

For more information on Illuminations ( and NM2 (

Nick Haeffner ( and Chris Lane ( work at London Metropolitan University (