• Interactive Television

    Interactive television is a person-to-person technique that allows two-way communication. Unlike conventional one-way television (TV) or radio broadcasts, most interactive TV enables viewers to respond by voice telephone or computer connected to an appropriate hosting service (Internet Service Provider, special on-line bulletin board, chat room, etc.). A further refinement of the technology uses sophisticated equipment, TV cameras, and special connections at both ends so that participants can see and hear one another. This kind of interactive TV is usually limited to small groups for long-distance conferences.


  • What is interactive television?
    Interactive television is characterized as follows:

    • A television broadcast includes telephone numbers or computer addresses to use in responding;

    • Participants use telephones or computers to comment or ask questions; and

    • Staff is available to record comments or respond to questions.

    Electronic town meetings are a good example, because large numbers of people participate directly from their homes or other designated locations. A meeting, presentation, or panel discussion is held in a central location with an audience, while a TV crew records and broadcasts the proceedings over local cable. Home viewers phone in questions for discussion leaders to answer—a format similar to a talk-radio call-in program. The Southern California Association of Governments uses interactive television to reduce the distance the public has to travel to participate in meetings. Conferencing equipment is placed at central locations in each of the six counties it serves.

    Why is it useful?
    “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Interactive TV provides direct or immediate knowledge of what transpired at a public meeting, which is useful for some people compared with a written summary document. Interactive TV helps people grasp a planning concept, understand complex programs, and absorb large amounts of information quickly. Television is an integral part of many people’s lives. It attracts broader participation in a public involvement program. Electronic town meetings, for instance, may actively engage “couch potatoes” who would otherwise not participate in civic affairs.

    Electronic town meetings increase awareness about a project or program. They are very useful for developing consensus across a broad range of participants. They provide a large segment of the population with direct, timely access to key decision-makers.

    Interactive TV offers the immediacy of a “live” broadcast. During a broadcast, participants at home respond or participate via telephone. They then see and hear that their concerns are being addressed, and possibly respond further.

    Town meeting audiences can convene in several locations. With interactive TV, large groups may take part at a central location while numerous individuals or small groups participate from homes or satellite meeting halls. The Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in Seattle held a Satellite Summit prior to adopting a proposed ballot measure on a major new transit system. From a central studio, the RTA board addressed audiences at five remote locations as well as home viewers via cable TV. Audience members at remote sites were able to pose questions and offer suggestions directly to the board. A videotape of the event was sent to local libraries for reference by those people unable to participate at broadcast time. (See Video Techniques)

    Informal surveys can be a central element in interactive TV. Viewers use telephones to register approval or disapproval on a specific project or issue under discussion. Results are tabulated and shown on the program, perhaps generating additional responses. (See Public Opinion Surveys)

    Does it have special uses?
    Interactive TV is especially useful for public presentations. Information can be disseminated at regular intervals to the audience at their homes.

    Interactive television can target a specific audience. Broadcasts can reach specialized audiences through non-English language or other special media channels or shows. Berks Community Television in Reading, Pennsylvania, is a two-way cable television program designed to reach seniors, a special use of the technology for a targeted audience.

    A broadcast helps an agency reach a wider audience than it might otherwise find. It increases both awareness and inclusiveness. Traditional broadcast technology is used for limited educational and outreach purposes, but the incorporation of two-way communication through interactive technology expands the participatory aspect of the medium. To increase public participation in regional transportation planning, Orange County replaced a public hearing with a “Community Dialogue,” sponsored by the Huntington Beach City Council Chamber. A talk-show format was used to interview transportation and land use planners about the impact of growth on the future of Southern California. Questions from an in-studio audience and call-in viewers were answered live on television. The show was run from 7:00-9:00 PM on a weeknight and simultaneously cablecast in nine different cities close to Huntington Beach. In addition, the cable company aired the program two more times during the day. The cable company estimated that more than 7,500 people watched the show.

    A broadcast allows instant feedback that can be shared with the entire community. Because people participate from their own homes, they do not need to arrange for childcare or worry about transportation or proper appearance.

    Who participates? And how?
    An interactive TV program involves many people—particularly if the program is well publicized. Broadcasts on a major local or regional channel stand the best chance of reaching many viewers for a program on transportation planning or project development.

    Cable TV subscribers are major users. Many public agencies have access to cable TV channels over which electronic town meetings may be carried. Any local person with access to such cable services and a telephone line may participate. Participation is limited in areas without cable access or if people do not subscribe to the service.

    Viewers call the TV station during a broadcast to register an opinion or comment. Viewers may call repeatedly if they do not receive a response or if they feel that the response is inadequate.

    Viewer responses are recorded on the voice track of a videotape of a program. As a program is being taped, a viewer calls in and converses with an agency person at the TV studio. The video equipment picks up both ends of the conversation. Responses may also be recorded, either automatically by an answering device or in person by agency staff answering telephone calls and recording responses in writing or on computer.

    Viewer input may provide immediate feedback. Calls from viewers inform the studio and home audiences of preference responses, survey results, or participant concerns.

    How do agencies use the output?
    Viewer comments help an agency gauge the level of community interest and concern about transportation issues. Heated, lively debate and strongly worded comments signal a controversial topic and indicate that the agency needs to reach out in other ways to the full array of concerned parties.

    Viewer feedback also helps an agency identify community perceptions about critical issues, impacts that are most sensitive, alternatives that are preferred or proposed, and ways to improve plans and make responsive decisions. In metropolitan planning, an agency can use viewers’ comments to identify differences of opinion and needs in subareas of a region or among types of interest groups. To get a clear sense of how public opinion is changing over the course of a project, a record of comments serves as a benchmark that can be compared with past or future responses. Such reference points assist an agency in evaluating long-term program goals or objectives and reassessing meeting techniques.

    Viewer input may be used to expand mailing lists. To increase the availability of transportation information, for instance, names and addresses of respondents are registered along with their questions and concerns. (See Mailing Lists)

    Who leads?
    Skilled professionals are required. Interactive TV demands the special technical skills of studio crews and facilitators who coordinate feedback through a telephone company. Although conventional presentation needs and requirements of a public meeting come into play, a skilled moderator for the program is also required.

    Agencies sponsor regular programs. Vermont Interactive Television shows live, two-way programs on subjects such as early childhood and family support meetings, technical mathematics, and Vermont history and government. It combines education with participatory technologies to bring together thousands of participants throughout a largely rural State.

    What are the costs?
    Interactive TV such as an electronic town meeting is expensive. The sophisticated equipment and skilled operator requirements raise costs. Contracting services are necessary for high-speed digital telephone lines to accommodate incoming calls and instantly tabulate data. An agency with access to a public TV channel may be able to reduce costs. For example, community access cable channels and/or schools with broadcast media facilities, both of which have public service missions, may be able to be used.

    How is interactive television organized?
    Cooperation from a local TV station is essential. A local station such as a local access cable channel or a local government or college station reaches most, if not all, homes in a broad area. A broadcast or town meeting event must be publicized on the station as well as in other print and electronic media so that people know when to tune in. A local TV station may also recommend a prominent media personality to moderate the program, keep discussion moving, and enliven the program. University stations might include student production of public meetings on interactive TV as part of the curriculum.

    Technical assistance on broadcasting is essential. Local stations are likely to be conversant with interactive techniques or can help find the right contacts.

    Comparison with a public meeting or hearing is useful as a starting point. Many public agencies are versed in the logistical requirements and strategic use of such meetings. (See Public Meetings/Hearings) A presentation of essential facts about the project or program provides a springboard from which discussion takes place. However, incorporation of interaction affects the program format and shapes the agenda to reach out to a larger audience.

    How is it used with other techniques?
    Interactive TV supplements a broader outreach program. It cannot be an agency’s sole means of communication with the public. Due to costs and time constraints, interactive TV may accent or bring to culmination a larger effort to inform the public. However, it also can be useful as a survey of public reactions to an issue. (See Public Opinion Surveys) It can function as a large-scale public meeting. (See Public Meetings/Hearings) Savannah, Georgia, broadcasts several meetings on the same topic from different locations with trained facilitators and programmers. Home viewers call in to respond, adding a sense of dynamic energy to the process.

    What are the drawbacks?
    Perceptions of the meaningfulness of participation via TV vary. Participants may doubt that a TV program has lasting impact. As is true with any new technology, people sometimes resent its use, because they perceive it as a replacement for personal communication.

    Imbalance is magnified by live TV. With any project or program, the danger arises that only one or a few interests will participate and that the dialogue will not accurately reflect the full array or relative strength of community opinions. Callers may want to grandstand a particular issue. Agencies can limit speaking times but cannot deny a determined individual the opportunity to speak. This emphasizes the importance of agency outreach to the full array of community interests.

    Broadcast adds pressure for quick decisions. Television events often put decision-makers in direct contact with members of the community, and the community may want immediate decisions. One transit agency held an open house for a major investment study that was heavily attended by a community that opposed one alternative. The community group arranged for the meeting with agency and legislative leaders to be broadcast in a hearing format over a local TV channel. During the meeting, a speaker (with vocal support from the crowd) demanded a satisfactory decision from the agency and the legislators in two weeks, rather than the several months scheduled in the study plan.

    Input from interactive TV, like that from informal surveys, is not statistically representative. Only interested people participate, and cable viewership in many areas is minimal. Broadcast responses supplement but do not substitute for more formal survey data as an accurate way to gauge public reaction. (See Public Opinion Surveys)

    Is interactive television flexible?
    Interactive television is inherently flexible for verbal presentations. An agency spokesperson agency can update the community on a project or a planning process. Adding graphics to a presentation, however, requires additional time and effort.

    Interactive TV is as flexible as other public meeting formats. However, the sponsoring agency is limited to times available on a station’s program schedule.

    When is it used most effectively?
    Electronic town meetings are most effective at an important juncture when focused, relevant public input is needed. The Central Puget Sound RTA, in partnership with a local commercial station, presented a two-hour, prime time program on its proposed rapid transit system. Moderated by a local media personality, the program showed features of transit systems from other cities. A 100-person audience was able to show approval or disapproval for various options via hand-held opinion meters that scored opinions on a scale of one to ten. A panel of experts and critics kept the discussion balanced.

    Interactive television can continually update transportation information. A cable TV program can offer a telephone number to call for further information. Its use is especially valuable for conveying images or visual representations of ideas, including renderings and animations of existing and potential conditions.

    Interactive television can build momentum for or against an improvement. This is particularly important when funding sources are in question. However, project opponents can also “hijack” that momentum. Political leaders who make budget decisions pay attention to high-profile events that reach a broad segment of their constituencies.

    For further information:
    Southern California Association of Governments

    Alaska Department of Transportation

    (907) 465-6958

    Berks Community Television
    (610) 374-3065

    Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority, Seattle, Washington
    (206) 398-5000

    Chatham Urban Transportation Study, Chatham County–Savannah, GA
    (912) 233-5767

    Georgia Department of Transportation
    (404) 631-1802

 Technique Ratings

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 Technique Information

Television Techniques
Project/Study Scale
Local/Sub-regional, Regional, Corridor, Statewide, Multistate
Public Engagement Goals
Consult, Inform
3 - 12 months, > 12 months

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