Interactive Television? It's Here with a Touch Tone Phone
This article appeared in the Dec 95 issue of Telecommunications for Local Governments, a publication of the Institute for Local Self Government (League of California Cities) and was reprinted with permission.
`When we got the access channels, we had an old bulletin board that scrolled the same twelve messages every 6 minutes," reported Rudy Vigil, coordinator for Wilmer, Minnesota's public education and governmental access center. "With the interactive bulletin board system, we've logged over 60,500 calls in 17 months. And we only serve 35,000 in nine small cities and townships!"
Unlike scrolling bulletin boards, these systems grow more useful as the amount of information increases. Interactive bulletin board systems store large numbers of databases and present a menu of options over a cable channel. Viewers call up the specific information they want when they want it using a touch tone phone. The system can poll viewers and track the number of calls-- invaluable when the question arises on viewership of access channels
The three systems on the market vary in capabilities. Some permit the viewer to spend real time in the system--even playing games--while other systems put the viewer's selection in a queue Graphics added to the appeal. Newer features allow viewers to call up messages stored on CD-ROM or videotape and see a fire safety video, for example. City departments can update their own information pages by modem. Some systems can schedule specific information and automatically start and end a temporary announcement. Another is developing Web access which will allow viewers to call up specific Internet information on the cable channel--say, a city's home page or the White House--by dialing in a menu code.
The systems have had particular appeal for communities with small access budgets since the cost of entry ranges from $4,000 to $10,000 for software. Both Wilmer and San Francisco, for example, went with interactive systems because their annual budgets were under $100,000. "San Francisco Community TV Corporation was given management of the government channel in 1993, and we had few other options for programming," said Zane Blaney, executive director. "It became an inexpensive vehicle for the city departments to get information out. For example, Parks and Recreation lost their public information office through budget cuts, and the channel became their primary outreach vehicle."
Other communities have selected interactive systems, because they give added value to the public. "We started InfoNet, our interactive system, a year ago over our county wide channel, although it took us ten years to negotiate the interconnection with the county's eight cable systems," recounted Pat Burke, the cable TV administrator in charge of public information, cable regulation and the government channels for Contra Costa County. …