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  • David J Bodycombe

Can Facebook’s Rival Peak help TV become truly interactive?

Gameshow guru David J. Bodycombe argues that for interactive TV to really come of age it must connect viewers to each other as well as to the content.


“Day 35, 11.32 a.m. Mira’s been alone in the woods for 2 hours ....”

Last month Facebook launched Rival Peak, a new survival competition format scheduled over 12 weeks and hosted by Wil Wheaton, where contestants must learn to cope with living in a harsh, mountainous environment - or get eliminated. So far, so reality show.

The twist? ‘Rival Peak’ is a live-streamed animated computer simulation, in which all the ‘contestants’ are in fact A.I. characters.

Viewers can lean back and watch the drama unfold like a regular linear TV format, or get involved and influence the action - giving advice, helping a character, making choices for them, all leading to a ‘score’ that determines "who stays, and who goes" as Big Brother would put it. The contestants have back-stories, live Facebook accounts (of course), and are unlikely to cheat on their partners, or get arrested for DUI.

For TV makers, interactivity has long seemed an attractive proposition.

It provides a new hook to catch audiences. It reassures advertisers that viewers are actively engaged with the screen, rather than using it as muzak. Voting, gamification, play-along and instant reward et al can be used to connect your audience with their favourite content 24/7.

But as time has shown, it's just not that easy to deliver.

For a show to be truly interactive, the viewers need a return path to send their choices and opinions back to the producers in a simple, timely manner. And that’s been a problem for decades.

In the early days of broadcasting, producers had to be inventive to make viewers feel part of the action (see below). When audiences split into free-to-air, satellite and cable consumers, the problems for interactivity mounted. Satellites received signals from space but had no natural return path, so set-top boxes had to have an additional (and rather slow) phone connection. Cable did have two-way communication, but implementation was clunky, with no easy way for the broadcasters to receive the information.

And technological change was not always for the better. Analogue TV signals were sent at the speed of light – literally – whereas digital TV requires a few seconds of compression delay. This makes for example interactive quiz formats trickier, as viewers see the questions at slightly different times depending on their home tech.

Then the mobile age dawned. Phone voting and text messages became a cheap popular way to count votes. Responses could be gathered in minutes rather than days. Now we have dedicated apps on handheld, internet-enabled devices, and the issue of a return path is largely resolved.

For instance, the ‘Love Island UK’ app allows producers to trigger votes on key decisions: who should stay, who should go, and who should pair up. During the ‘as live’ broadcast, ITV’s ‘5 Gold Rings’ inserts a live graphic of the name of the highest-scoring app user.

Netflix has made some inroads with ‘Black Mirror: Bandersnatch’ and ‘You vs. Wild’, where – like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books – you can decide how the storyline should progress. But you still have to film all the necessary pathways, which is very expensive. And are they genuinely ‘interactive’? My personal decisions have no lasting effect on your story.

In the age of social media and ‘shareability’, this is not a strong enough proposition.

Then there’s the ‘live’ issue. For interactivity on TV to have genuine impact, it needs to be live. But live TV can be rehearsal-heavy, complicated, high risk and expensive. Netflix doesn’t do it, while YouTube, Amazon and other 800-pound gorillas have found it technically difficult at times.

Are platforms like Twitch showing the way? With a mostly live offering, their ‘sit forward’ proposition uses on-screen performers to encourage viewers to take part, alongside chat windows, polls and highlighted messages. All this can be done for free, without any of the usual costs associated with partnering with mobile phone companies.

Which brings us back to Facebook’s ‘Rival Peak’.

This reality competition format is live, my vote is easy to collect (and can influence events), and it sits on a social media platform I already share with my friends. as well as billions of other people. In fact, Rival Peak is the latest example of MILE a.k.a. ‘Massive Interactive Live Event’where many people can feel part of the same experience. The eyeballs are out there to be had – in April 2020, the rapper Travis Scott held a concert within the Fortnite world that was watched by over 12 million.

And that perhaps is the real lesson for interactivity going forwards. After 2020’s unique blend of mass physical isolation and massive virtual connection, interactive experiences have to offer a shared emotional experience, as well as 24/7 connection to the content. Which Facebook, as a social networking service, is designed to do.

If producers and broadcasters can figure out how to connect audiences to each other, as well as to the show, live and at cost, then interactive TV might finally come of age.

UPDATE Jan 6 2021: ITV’s Studio 55 Ventures just announced a partnership with Live Tech Games’s mobile gaming experience Roshambo – a head-to-head tournament of Rock Paper Scissors - to give ITV viewers the opportunity to play along in live tournaments against other people across the country.


Some historic examples of how broadcasters have used low-tech solutions to help viewers feel more engaged:

  • In the 1920s and '30s, BBC commentaries for soccer and rugby matches used the numbers 1 to 8 to indicate which section of the pitch currently had the ball. Diagrams showing the numbers were printed in the Radio Times listings magazine.

  • From the '60s to '80s, talent shows such as ‘Opportunity Knocks’ and ‘New Faces’ received votes on postcards sent in by the public, with the winners only declared the following week.

  • ‘Grand Slam’, a BBC show about bridge (the card game), printed books viewers could buy from shops beforehand to read as a companion with the pre-recorded TV series.

  • Also on the BBC, ‘So You Think…?’ posed questions about various topics (e.g. driving, history, love) to both in-studio teams and viewers at home, with answer sheets printed in listings magazines. In many ways, it was the precursor of the ‘Test the Nation’ format in the 2000s.

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