Sunday, August 5, 2012

Interactive television

I was reading a study the other day on things that trigger some people (ages 12-20) to become cyber bullies. It was a fascinating piece that I feel hit the nail on the head: if you have some spare time, it’s a good read. In fact, I’d like to cue in a segment of the article that really caught my eye:

Because humans are used to communicating in person, our brains are hard-wired to take in all manner of non-verbal cues such as gestures, facial expressions, tone and pitch of language as well as the pace at which people speak, explains Simon Rego, Psy.D., director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.
"When you move online, suddenly all those cues also removed," he says. "You are stripped of the nonverbal cues, the patterns of speech, the rate, tone and context and you're left with a lot of guesswork."

And when humans are faced with guesswork and ambiguity, they often perceive it as threatening and react accordingly. This may have saved your life in prehistoric times but in modern times, it can mean an escalating series of jabs on Twitter ending in handcuffs and a stint in jail.

It makes sense. When you read an article like this one, you feel as though you are listening to the person as he/she is in the room with you, so you feel as though you know the writer. However you don’t. And unless I’m speaking to you via a video chat, you can’t see any of my actual facial cues, and I can’t respond to you the same as if I were to see you in person. For all you know, I could be doing jumping jacks every third sentence, and then singing a song about Narwhales and you would never actually know that.

Celebrity magazines are written in a way that also makes the celebrity too familiar to you. A film called Teenage Paparazzo really opened my eyes when more than one psychologist pointed out that (for example) when you read a tabloid, it doesn’t say “Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie made a public appearance at McDonald’s” instead it’s written as “There they go AGAIN! Bradgelina at Mickey D’s, what can YOU say about that? We know what you’re thinking!” See? The two are presented to you in a manner that makes them seem like your next door neighbors instead of who they really are ~ two total strangers ~ whom you do NOT know ~ trying to enjoy a regular lunch.

It’s often creepy to get a series of emails from someone who SWEARS they know everything about you, and that they hear from you every day, when they are a total stranger. Creepier when you’re receiving death threats and hack attempts over something you posted and forgot about. And yet many cyber stalkers and hackers cry out as they’re being arrested “But I KNOW you!! I KNOW WHO YOU REALLY ARE and I can EXPOSE you!!”

A person that deep into your work is really no different than the fan-boy you try to avoid at Comic Con. You know the one. The guy who SWEARS to you that Will Wheaton is for real and serious Wesley Crusher, and he KNOWS Wes because he’s watched him grow up. Yeah, THAT guy, the one who’s in his 50’s and has yet to learn the difference between real and television show. Or the creepy girl at Otakon that SWEARS to you that only SHE knows how to “properly” use Miku Hatsune, and that Crypton answers to her Wikia page. Yeah, the creep in her 30’s who hasn’t figured out that Miku is a computer graphic, and is about as likely to “hear” you as Buzz Lightyear. You’ve seen them.

Now with all this said about magazines and the internet, that got me thinking. When’s the last time you read a study like this on interactive television?

Now ITV is nothing new. Even before there was television, many cartoons would break the fourth wall and let the audience in on a prank. One animator by the name of Tex Avery made it his hallmark. He would let Bugs Bunny (when he worked for Warner Brothers) or Screwy Squirrel (at MGM) talk to the live theater audience and let them know what’s on their minds (I like him, he’s silly!) or what the next scene would have (Eh… I’ll perplex ‘em with me slow ball.) in store for the villain. At MGM, Tex had to answer to a man named Fred Quimby, who HATED these segments. He never liked the idea of pretend characters breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the viewer. He felt that it was just plain wrong. And I’m curious as to why he felt that way. Did he know something we don’t know?

Back in the 50’s it was a common treat on any broadcast channel. It started small, you would watch a game show and try to guess who would win. Sometimes you could send in your phone number and address and get a chance to win a prize. It was just a short time later really that vote-in shows and live talk shows became common place. (For those of you too young to remember, there was a day before American Idol. Fox Kids used to let us vote for what shows we wanted to see.)

Children’s ITV was invented just as soon as TV was. In the 50’s, you could buy fancy toys or send away for decoder rings, and play along with the TV show. A plucky cowboy or a general of a space fleet would often cue the young viewers at home to point their plastic object at the screen, to try and catch the bad guy. This generation of kids found absolutely no shock in the infra-red toys of the 80’s and 90’s that offered my generation to play the same.

But in the mid 90’s, ITV took an interesting turn, and honestly, I never thought about it until today. But this is something I would like to see a study on.

In 1996 Nick Jr started a seemingly harmless show called Blue’s Clues, about a blue puppy who leaves obvious clues for her well meaning but dim-witted owner, Steve. This was no ordinary show though, it was Interactive Television.

The premise is simple. Blue decides on something she wants, and then leaves clues for Steve all throughout his house. During the 25 minute episode, Steve speaks one-on-one to the viewer, asking for their opinions. After an exceedingly LONG pause, he nods his head, as if to say “Ok that’s nice” and then waits for the “A CLUE A CLUE” cue to point him to what he needs to see.

Viacom and several parental coalitions ran several studies on children 2-6 and came back with what they deemed as favorable results. “The kids really get into it. They feel like their part of something big!” is what I heard most often. But it’s the next line that got me. “My child feels like she KNOWS Blue!” Um… yeah, that’s not cute.

Now I was too old for Blue’s demographic, but at the time my brother wasn’t. We watched about two episodes before he declared this show contrite and lame (large words for a 4 year old) and then he dismissed it. Future viewings at my house were often the result of a lazy afternoon when the VCR has blown. So of course I never thought to ask too many questions about the show.

But Blue wasn’t the only ITV show on. In 2000 Dora the Explorer started, and soon, every show on PBS was super pushing existing ITV segments as THE thing to watch.

Sometime after Dora started becoming a dominant force, I remember being at one of my mom’s ex-friend’s houses. Because I was praised for being more responsible for my age, this woman would insist on having her children hang around me, to broaden their horizons. (Please read: free babysitter.) So on one such afternoon while my mom and this woman were off doing… I have no idea what, I was sitting with my brother (then 11) and these other children, ages 9, 6 and 2.

The two year old had run of the house, and she decided that the curiously re-scheduled afternoon block was going to be the ONLY thing on. And she was a fierce one. See, she was special needs, and soon after birth, she needed a special surgery to save her life. She knew that. She didn’t understand colors, shapes or the alphabet yet, but she understood how close to death she once was, and she held it over the other two like the sword of Damocles. “I HADS SU-GEWY. WHAT YOU GOTZ? NOTHIN? WE WATCHES DOWA NAOW!!” Oh… she was brilliant.

So Dora started a minute late, and it wasn’t long before I was praying for the little street urchin to catch a sore throat. Good lord, just because children are watching doesn’t mean you need to punish us all with the most shrill voice available. Did you get Jane from the Go-Go’s to do a voice and then pitch her WAY up??

So surprisingly, all four kids sit down quietly to watch “Dowa”… for about 10 minutes. When suddenly Swiper appears and steals something. (It was in her bag, so I don’t remember what it was, let’s just pretend it was a present.) To get across to get the present back, Dora needs her boots. (Not the monkey.) So she calls upon her living backpack for help. (When’s the last time you washed this thing?) Backpack (what a clever name) produces a garden hoe, a map and a pair of boots, and challenges the kids at home to find Dora’s boots.

The 2 year old, who until this point in the day was very smart and could think for herself, suddenly doesn’t know what to do. She points aimlessly at the screen, identifying a garden hoe as “Boots”. This made me very sad. Why? Because ironically enough, she was wearing a pair of BOOTS at the time this episode aired. More ironic? The boots had Dora and her pet monkey named Boots on the side.

What kind of terrible parent out there would let a little girl walk alone in a forest with a pet monkey ~ an inbred monkey at that, because let’s face it, Boots is the WRONG color ~ is beyond me, but I digress.

The child was wearing Dora the Explorer boots, and yet could not identify Dora’s boots on the screen. They were even in the same colors as the boots on screen, making me more sad.

The 6 year old started pointing and screaming “BOOTS!! BOOTS!!!! BOOOOOOOOOOTS!!!” unable to grasp that Dora can’t hear him.

Making this episode worse is Dora’s constant egging “What? What did you say? No comprende!” at the top of her lungs.

The 9 year old points “The boots are over there.”

The 11 year old rolls his eyes “This is LAAA~AAAAME!!” but then joins in once he realizes this scene is taking too long. “The boots are over THERE you stupid bimbo!!”

The 9 year old snaps back. “Don’t you call Dora stupid!!”

“She IS stupid! First of all, who keeps boots in a backpack, and second the boots are right freaking there!”

“She is NOT stupid!! Don’t say that you could hurt her feelings!”

“She CAN’T hear you, she’s a CARTOON. She doesn’t HAVE feelings!!”

“Yes she does!”

“NO she DOESN’T!! She’s just a poorly drawn kid in a Flash cartoon, voiced by a wing bar waitress!”

“DORA IS NOT A WAITRESS!! She’s an explorer and she’s NOT STUPID!!”

“Look, she can’t figure out the difference between a garden hoe, a map and a pair of boots, her voice is high enough to deafen dogs ~ as is evident by YOUR dog needing ear drops when I got here ~ she’s always asking us every 5 minutes how we’re doing ~ KNOWING the answer, and she’s carting around a GARDEN HOE. Not only is Hoe a bad word meaning Bimbo, if you stick it in the ground tight enough and spin, she’s a STRIPPER! Why is she carrying this around?? She NEVER goes to school, you NEVER see her read a book and she can’t figure out footwear. DORA IS A STUPID BIMBO!!”


As I’m trying to referee the 11 and 9 year old, the 6 year old shouts “HA! I got it RIGHT!!” as Dora puts on her boots.

Now the two year old is screaming her little head off, crying and kicking, angry that the garden hoe wasn’t chosen. As the 11 and 9 year old go to their respective chairs for a minute, the two year old rubs her head against my leg, and then punches the couch. From the baby talk I can translate, apparently she thought this was no time for boots. Dora should have taken the garden hoe, cracked Swiper in the head with it, taken back the present and then used the hoe to dig a shallow grave and leave his body there, after of course a second swat to the head. Where she got this idea I’m not sure, but I do agree that her was would have saved us a ton of grief.

Now the 6 year old is rubbing it in the two year old’s face that he got it right. To add insult to injury, he also declares that they should have been watching Spider-Man instead. How Spider-Man got involved is beyond me, because at the time there were no Spider-Man cartoons on, but now the 2 and 6 year olds are arguing over whether or not Spider-Man is better at finding clues than Dora.

Well now Dora needs us to help her say “water” in Spanish. “Agua”. One of about 15 words I do know in Spanish. So right in front of an impasse, Dora darts her creepy brown eyes into the camera, and without blinking screams “Say AGUA!!”

All four of the children scream AGUA at the top of their lungs.

“I can’t hear you. Say AGUA!!”


“What? Did you say… chocolate cake?”

“NO you stupid bimbo I said AGUA!!!” Screams the 11 year old, beyond annoyed by now.

“Stop calling her a Bimbo!! She can hear you!!”

“NO she CAN’T!! If she could she could hear me screaming AGUA!!!”

“Agua you’re RIGHT!” Says Dora, but now her face looks serious.

“YOU MADE DORA SAD!!” Angrily screams the 9 year old. “APOLOGIZE!! She looks all serious!”

“Oh GEE could it be because she has to cross over a river next to a WATERFALL?? In that case I’d be serious too!! And LOOK there are sharp, pointy rocks!”

“NOoooooooOOOoo She’s serious because YOU made her sad. APOLOGIZE!!”

Dora crosses the river, but Swiper appears again. “Oh NO! What should I do? Can you say Backpack?”

Four children are screaming for the backpack. Again we have a garden hoe, a map and now a net. “What should I do?”

The 2 year old is stomping her little feet and pointing at the garden hoe. The 6 year old is pointing to the map. The 11 and 9 year olds are screaming for the net. Dora is confused.

“What should I bring out of my .. BACKPACK?”

“ASPIRIN!!!” I scream.

The 9 year old looks back at me. “Silly Kori! Dora can’t bring aspirin with her. Zero tolerance, drugs are bad.”

“OH GOODY! So she can’t even figure out to bring regular first aid in case of an emergency?” Snaps the 11 year old.

“Look here, I KNOW Dora, and she’s NOT STUPID!!”

“No first aid and she can’t figure out footwear? SHE’S STUPID BIMBO!! Look she can’t even figure out how to GET THE NET AND CATCH SWIPER”



Now I want you to imagine this entire episode again, on repeat for 30 minutes. Why 30? Because while Nick Jr airs Dora commercial free, the show stops at minute 25. This gives us 4 minutes worth of commercials. But these aren’t normal commercials, oh no. No, I am not granted the luxury of 4 straight minutes of mindless consumerism, brought about by corporate greed in the shape of a chubby Dora doll with rooted hair. Oh no, perish the thought. For you see, the parental coalitions have decided that in lieu of consumerist ads targeting the 2-11 demographic (sweet, sweet consumerism), pre-school programs should be followed by little segments where people and puppets come onto the screen, and engage the viewer in more Interactive Television.

“Hey kids! It’s time to stand up! We’re going to play the eagle game, okay?? GOOD! Now flap your arms like this *wildly slaps self in the thighs* then turn around and caw. CAW CAAAAW *says the perpetrator at the top of his lungs* now you do it too, but really fast, ready? GO!!!”

Imagine a 2 and a 6 year old smacking them selves, running around in circles, and screaming as loud as they can.

“OKAY KIDS! Now Blue wants you to find the triangle. Where is the triangle? C’mon now, kids? Where’s the triangle?”

Now let’s pretend there is a marathon of Dora and her inability to figure out footwear. Yeah.

Now at the time, I didn’t really put it together. I just figured this was a mindless program for toddlers, and I was too busy nursing a migraine to actually care.

Fast forward a number of years. Those kids are now probably 19, 16 and 12, perfectly within the age bracket of the cyber bullies typically fingered for the new studies coming out now about the internet and it’s effect on people.

During these ten years, kids in those age groups have had nothing but Interactive Television. Dora was ITV, Blue was ITV, anything to do with Kids Choice was ITV. Hell, 90% of Nick Jr and Nickelodeon programming itself is ITV. Even the late night shows ask you to pick what you think happens next, and to interact with characters.. that are not even real. From there, they ask you to interact with real life celebrities, as though you personally know them. (Ever hear the commentary between awards? Sounds suspiciously like a tabloid…)

But, you never really had the chance to choose what happens, did you? No, it was all pre-determined. These shows essentially tell you what you are going to think. Your "choices" have already been chosen for you, decided for you. Don't get me wrong, it's still interactive television, and you are interacting with the TV. Just not how you planned. You sit still, and the TV tells you what to think. (You really want the boots. Wanting anything else is bad. Dora needs the boots.)

These shows were also slipped in as educational, but really, did you learn anything from them?

Since my babysitting story, I've seen about 13 episodes of Dora all together. That's about 1-2 seasons, depending upon how Nick Jr wants to bill it. My Spanish isn't any better, in fact it's actually gotten worse. I catch myself second guessing and pondering over simple words and phrases, so the best Spanish I can muster up is ¿Dónde está Burger King? (Where's the Burger King?) And the last time I heard from them, the kids I watched knew even less Spanish then that, but they watched Dora every day!

The kids that watched Blue's Clues and Dora every day did no better in school than if they hadn't seen it at all. And if anything since these "educational" shows came about, the nation's test scores have taken a solid nosedive, with large cities (such as Detroit, where Dora is exceedingly popular) doing the worst. (Cities, more expensive areas in which parents have better access to cable and dish channels that air programs like Dora.)

Kids in these age groups were pretty much pushed into growing up quickly too. Think about it. Kids Bop CD’s are chock full of songs that really should not be sung by children. Kids Bop 22 for example has Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” which is a song about stalking a potential one night stand, Maroon 5’s “Payphone” and GOTYE’s “Somebody that I used to Know”, which are both anthems about the end of a relationship, and “Moves Like Jagger” which is a catchy song, but has anybody read the lyrics?

I don't give a sh*t
And it goes like this
Take me by the tongue
And I'll know you
Kiss me 'til you're drunk
And I'll show you

Not EVER something a child should sing. But sing they do. And when they outgrow Nickelodeon at age 12, most of them migrate to reality shows, which feature self-absorbed and often times rude, loud, disrespectful trolls, being paid more than a Jock’s salary each week, just to be obnoxious. Each week on shows like Teen Mom and Jersey Shore, teenagers watch these people having meltdowns and fist fights ~ often times over issues that can be resolved with a quiet “no thank you” and between episodes, teens are told the same things.

“Join our website so you can interact with your favorite stars. Get the app so you can keep tabs on them. Follow your favorite on Twitter and get the behind the scenes scoop we can’t show you here.”

The viewer at home is being told that this is perfectly normal.

And where are the parents? Doing the exact same thing in the next room, voting on an American Idol or getting the 411 on the Bachelor, trying to decide who should be chosen.

And in the event they’re told “this is pre-determined” or “it’s just a TV show, relax” these people get violently angry, and take to the internet. And again, everyone is told this is “normal” behavior.

Now I can’t outright blame ITV for society, can I? I mean on paper, it looks like a fun hobby. We all play games, we all like to feel closer to people that are (and should be) unreachable, so I can’t say the initial intentions are bad.

But like most things, too much of a good thing can be bad. Spinach, iced tea and asparagus are good for you, but if you eat too much, you put yourself at risk for kidney stones, and the build up of uric acid can aggravate gout. So it’s always a good idea to eat these things sparingly, right?

Then maybe it’s time we scaled back a little bit on the interactivity. Start small. Trade in two hours of ITV for just plain TV. See how you feel.


  1. I always hated watching Noggin, but I had to because of my baby cousin. They always put BS beforehand explaining how to kid learns about "Biodiversity" and "Communication skills."

    1. They have those warnings still on the Nick Jr station. Although I'm still trying to figure out how Yo Gabba Gabba teaches self-esteem.

    2. Ya know the First season of the CGI show ReBoot

      on a torrent will have the same effect just don't show him the third season XD