Why you should care

Internet TV may just have the new technology to keep you hooked in the digital age.

One night in June, at 7 p.m., Luana Rosado settled in for her favorite TV show, the Brazilian soap opera Geração Brasil. Rosado, a 28-year-old student from the northeastern city of Fortaleza, joins many millions of Brazilians also addicted to the evening soaps. But this night, she was watching for something else: herself.

Imagine appearing in your favorite TV show, with your face right up there between shots of your favorite actors, broadcast around the country. Implausible? Maybe in the U.S. But in Brazil these days, thanks to a new type of interactive television, that dream has become a real possibility, thrilling Brazilian viewers. It could change the television game for all of us.

In one episode, a Steve Jobs-like character called for viewers to send in ideas for a romance-oriented mobile app — the best would be aired.

While the concept of interactive TV has gained traction over the past decade, the latest technology has created new possibilities and blurred the line between the Internet and TV. Brazil is now using technology to test the limits of high interactivity, in which viewers affect the content of the program — in this case the unfolding of a drama. Early indications, at least in Brazil, are that viewers are hooked on it.

“Even soap operas that for many years had this very stable format, even they are changing,” says João Brandão, a screenwriter for Geração Brasil, who’s crafting the new interactivity. “This new format we’ve put forward has the chance to change how people arrive at the soap operas, how they interact with their favorite shows.”

A scene from a popular Brazilian tv show with lots of actors looking at their mobile devices

Scene from Geração Brasil

Geração Brasil this summer crafted a storyline in which a Steve Jobs-like character sought a successor. In one episode, the Jobs character called for viewers to send in ideas for a romance-oriented mobile app, the best of which would be aired within the show’s fictional program, with the successor selected from the group by viewers.

Brazilian viewers like Rosado responded with such force that they crashed the Globo network website. “They offered something different,” said Rosado. “Geração Brasil turned out to be a very tech-savvy show, one of the first of its kind in Brazil.” In the end, Rosado didn’t appear on Geração Brasil, but she wasn’t by any means crestfallen. “It was the first time any soap asked us for something,” she said.

The Bravo TV channel is now experimenting with the connection between Twitter and TV in The Singles Project, in which viewers tweet dating advice.

Brazil leads the way in social media. Last year The Wall Street Journal named Brazil “The Social Media Capital of the Universe,” and recent studies confirm that Brazil is at the front of the pack. A growing middle class, a young population — 62 percent of Brazilians are 29 or younger — a lack of government blocks like those in China and the loquacious, share-friendly culture of Brazil all bolster the obsession, which helps open the door to TV interactivity.

“This was something really different that changed the system,” said Brandão. “Our show’s creators, Filipe Miguez and Izabel de Oliveira, were extraordinarily street smart in this sense.”

Actually, smarter than viewers realize. Turns out the interactivity is partly illusion, hedged in by the most boring of all aspects of production: logistics.

“The production to mount a soap opera is huge,” Brandão explained, “especially if it is being filmed abroad,” such as Geração Brasil, which was filmed partly in California. “Normally all we can do is look at which character the public is identifying with, and we writers will mess with the script a bit to please the public and recenter the soap opera on that character.” But to completely change the show, to completely change the direction as a result of viewer interaction? “The possibility of that is minimal, because this is an industry, you know?”

Around the world, the “Social TV” trend is catching on in surprising ways, thanks to the Internet, with Japan, India and Brazil leading the way. The U.S. originated the format with phone-in game shows such as American Idol and Dancing With the Stars. The Bravo TV channel is now experimenting with the connection between Twitter and TV in The Singles Project, in which viewers tweet dating advice to a group of young people losing in the dating game.

The rise of interactive TV (iTV) has coincided with the rise of IPTV, or Internet Protocol television. IPTV allows viewers to watch TV via the Internet, using platforms such as Hulu, Roku, Apple and Amazon. IPTV, which claims 100 million users worldwide, continues to grow 15 percent annually in the U.S. It’s not yet popular in Brazil, but it’s coming. A new study shows that by 2017, 3.9 million Brazilians will be using IPTV.

“It turns out iTV is often a laptop, mobile or tablet experience,” reported Jonathan Nelson, CEO of Omnicom Digital. “It’s not coming through the cable operators that, at one time, were thought to hold the keys to iTV.”

And it’s created new marketing possibilities. Recently, “addressable ads,” TV ads tailored to the specific viewer, have gained traction. For example, an insurance company ran ads for renter’s insurance only on the TVs of apartment dwellers, saving marketing costs by targeting only potential clients. Marketers are scrambling to find a way to turn TV into a more direct product-purchasing conduit.

So it’s a two-way street: viewers are shaping the shows and advertisers and marketers are starting to shape what individual viewers are seeing.

While the potential is clear, producers will also have to consider how to exploit the new technology while not losing traditional, still highly lucrative, audiences.

Brandão sees this concern as alarmist and old fashioned. “People also thought that when television came out that it would be the end of movies. But in fact it was the opposite effect. People did not stop going to the movies. Rather, one enhanced the other.”

As more and more people cut the cord on cable TV, producers had better hope Brandão is right.

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