TV Eye

Margin Material

The Future of Television: Super-Modality panel at SXSW Film 07
The Future of Television: Super-Modality panel at SXSW Film 07 (Photo by Gary Miller)

"A TV panel at a film conference. Go figure," remarked Christy Lemire, film critic for the Associated Press and moderator for Ready for Prime Time: TV Comedy of Today. The couple is not as odd as it might seem to anyone who has been watching the disintegrating boundaries around TV, film, and online media content. As for the panel, all of the original panelists canceled (Rob Corddry, Al Jean, Seth McFarlane), replaced with writers Ricky Blitt (Family Guy, The Winner), Tim Long (Late Show With David Letterman, The Simpsons), and voice talent Mike Henry (Family Guy). The assembled dove quickly into a fan fest about Family Guy and The Simpsons and "how I got into this crazy business" talk. Blitt did manage an interesting comment about political correctness. He observed that when Archie Bunker or George Jefferson made their outrageously racist remarks on All in the Family, it was understood that the joke was Archie's or George's bigotry, not the subject of the remark. How and when did that understanding change? Good question. It would have been good to hear more on that.

The truly jaw-dropping panel was presented earlier in the day by David Merkoski of Frog Design, The Future of Television: Super-Modality. Modes, ZUIs, GUIs ... um, yeah. As the nontech head in the audience, all the background technology talk was gibberish to me. What did make sense is that Frog Design (for Open TV) is creating a new way to interface with TV that will make the existing TV remote and how we access information seem quaint.

The conventional way of surfing TV relies on the TV Guide model first designed in 1952: relentlessly linear grids organized by time. In the new model, viewers see a map of choices: more like approaching a buffet instead of a cafeteria line. Once you see something you like, you can gravitate toward that, decide on "garnishes," select, save, move on, or completely discard and start over again. The new interface remembers your movement, similar to TiVo, though the viewer can preprogram their likes and dislikes as well.

What is seen on the screen is not a grid but visually rich margin material around the primary image or program being viewed. Each of these margin areas provides different but related material: what's next on the viewed channel, what's similar to what you're viewing, a history of other programs you've watched, etc. Each of these margin areas (among others) has layers of information. You can go as deep or remain as close to the surface as you want. In the end, the goal is to create an immersive, televisual experience that relies less on making the viewer conform to the conventions of the technology than on having the technology conform to viewer navigation. If the hushed audience, who broke into applause once Merkoski concluded his demonstration, was any indication, I think he and his team at Frog Design are onto something. Look for this new technology as early as next year.

On the Lot plug of the week: "The Spirit of Stevie Ray" by Steve Bilich. Check it out at films.thelot.com/films/21119. I don't think I mentioned before that visitors to the On the Lot site can vote and rank films they view (after registering). I don't know how much real sway that information has on selecting the show's contestants, but it couldn't hurt. On the Lot premieres on Fox May 22.

Last words: The good folks at This American Life wanted me to make it perfectly clear that their show is produced by Chicago Public Radio and distributed by Public Radio International. It is carried on 500 National Public Radio stations, but This American Life is not an NPR production.

Speaking of This American Life, the last radio edition that aired here on Sunday was titled, "What I Learned From TV." In it, host Ira Glass talks about his experience with TV, reflections on making the new TV version of TAL that premiered this week on Showtime, and a very funny moment of experiencing his show referenced on The OC. You can get a podcast of the episode at www.thislife.org.

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