Interactive signals embedded in CBC show

A new Canadian dramatic series called Drop the Beat will use iTV technology to create an interactive experience for the audience.

Produced by Back Alley productions in collaboration with Alliance Atlantis communications, the half-hour show focuses on two young men who run a hip-hop radio show.

“It’s actually modelled after the CIUT FM radio station at the University of Toronto,” said Patrick Crowe, a producer with ExtendMedia in Toronto. ExtendMedia is the iTV company behind the interactive content.

Crowe explained that ExtendMedia’s proprietary temporal annotation generator (TAG) software inserts interactive components into linear streaming media.

“iTV triggers are embedded in the vertical blanking interval of the broadcast signal. Your set-top box can decode that information and when it knows there’s some interactive content there, it displays a little icon in the upper right-hand corner of your screen. You can click on that using your remote control and it connects to the Internet, downloads a bunch of Web page information, and then the triggers that are embedded will tell it when to flip a new page up that’s synchronized to the actual content of the program that you’re watching,” Crowe said.

He likened the basic level of interaction to VH1’s Pop-Up Video, in which music videos are played with animated information bubbles superimposed throughout the show to provide extra information.

“The first show (of Drop the Beat) is about police harassment of black youth. The TAG information can explain that this episode was inspired by a certain incident that occurred…It can also incite people to go further, asking them to speak their minds on our message board.

“If they click there, they go into a deeper level of interaction where the video screen shrinks to quarter-size and there’s other information around the rest of the screen. You can go behind the scenes to find out information about the characters and the actors that play them,” Crowe said.

He said the producers are all careful not to design “gratuitous interactivity” that would result in audience members no longer paying attention to the show itself. More complex interactivity, such as participating in forums, tends to be placed adjacent to commercials. When asked if that would possibly irk advertisers, Crowe pointed out that keeping viewers on the same channel and in the room during commercials makes the advertisements more likely to be seen. And since VCRs will tape the interactive enhancements, viewers may not even fast-forward through commercials.

While the iTV components themselves are reserved for WebTV customers, the Web site accessible by WebTV and normal computers offers much of the same information and ability to communicate in forums.

“A the end of the show, you’re invited to to actually hear that week’s [fictional] radio show,” said Crowe. The site will also occasionally feature guests in chat right after the show, further prompting viewers to log in immediately afterwards.

He said fan interaction on the site will definitely be considered in future plots of the show.

“The Web site purports to be the Web site of these characters, Dennis and Jeff, the hosts of the Drop the Beat radio show. People can communicate their ideas and concerns about the plots directly to those characters and to allow them to respond in character to people on the Web site. There’s a real blurring of the reality within the TV show and the reality where we all live,” Crowe said.

Drop the Beat debuted Feb. 7.