Almost Famous

The long, strange history of interactive TV’s 60-year career as the next big thing.


Winky Dink and You


The cartoon series asks viewers to draw parts of the scenery on sheets (50 cents each) laid on top of their TV screens. It goes off the air in 1957 but returns from 1969 to 1973 with 65 color episodes.


The first TV text service (“see facts” — get it?), delivering “pages” of news, weather, and other information, comes to be by chance when the BBC is looking for subtitle technology. Service peaks at 22 million users per week in the 1990s. It’ll display its last facts in 2012.


Using handheld controllers, viewers in Columbus, Ohio, play along with quiz shows, shop on-screen, and participate in polls with Warner Communications’ “two-way TV.” By 1984, with $30 million in losses, Warner begins phasing out the service.


NTN Communications lets fans predict plays using consoles in bars and restaurants, starting with the 1984 Super Bowl. By 1998, 15 million people play the game each month.


The couch potato becomes the director in ACTV’s trial run in Springfield, Massachusetts. Viewers could control camera angles and play games, but the service requires cable companies to devote extra channels to ACTV, which ends up being a deal breaker. Acquired by Liberty Media in 2002.


Time Warner’s ITV project
The much-ballyhooed return of Time Warner to interactive TV 10 years after Qube is also a bust. Consumers aren’t willing to cough up $7,000 for a set-top box, and its Orlando, Florida, test of an interactive-TV system — shopping, on-demand content, video games — fizzles by 1997, as digital cable and the Internet rise.



American Idol
Singers on Fox’s hit reality show count on text messages to boost them to “idol” status. Viewers send 7.5 million texts the second season; by season eight, the peak of voting-by-text, the show tallies 178 million texts.


TiVo’s interactive advertising
The service that pioneered skipping over commercials finally embraces Madison Avenue, displaying text ads — linked to more information — when a show is paused. Bonus: TiVo and Domino’s team up to alleviate the existential angst of pizza delivery, letting you order — and track — your pie on the tube.


The service becomes a natural companion to watching TV, as the site booms to 160 million users.