Interactive TV Shows: When the Audience Drives the Action

Jason Hazlewood /
Interactive TV Shows

In the 1980s, there was a series of books called Choose Your Own Adventure. Readers would begin on page 1, but after completing a section, they would be directed to another page based on choices they were offered relevant to the plot. These books were on every reader and adventure gamer’s shelf during the Reagan era. They were only set aside when video games brought the interaction of role-playing games and massive multiplayer online games.

Movies that allowed audiences to choose options for the main character didn’t seem feasible in either a theater or home viewing. A movie or show follows a certain path that can’t change because it is a complete work, even if there are multiple endings. Experiments with multiple endings to movies, such as the movie version of the game Clue, were the closest movies and television came to audience interaction. Being able to choose a character’s options was relegated only to video games, and that’s where viewer interaction stayed until streaming video, specifically Netflix, introduced a new way of watching  series and movies.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch is perhaps the most famous of all of Netflix’s interactive content, and with good reason. One of the best-produced of adult interactive TV shows, Bandersnatch was suspenseful and involved the viewer directly in the story by acknowledging the existence of the viewer within the plotline. The plot follows a young computer programmer in 1984 as he tries to create an interactive video game based on a novel with a dark history. The show even throws a nod at Choose Your Own Adventure books as the protagonist compares both the novel and his game to one of them.

However, Bandersnatch is not the only interactive title in Netflix’s library. Most of the other titles are meant for kids, including shows with a nostalgic element such as Stretch Armstrong: The Breakout and those aimed squarely at children like Puss in Boots, Captain Underpants, and more recent Carmen Sandiego titles. They all provide an interactive viewing experience that is entertaining and even educational. Buddy Thunderstruck, one of the first interactive Netflix offerings, is about two rodents who ask that the audience chooses between “awesome” stunts that land them in toilet humor situations. You vs. Wild has audiences directing adventurer Bear Grylls on missions through various types of survival situations. In both cases, the plot is propelled by the choices made by the viewer.

Interactive shows depend on a concept called “breaking the fourth wall.” This refers to the idea that if a stage represents four walls of a room, the side facing the audience is one of them. Generally, this forms an imaginary wall between the audience and the performers on stage. The fourth wall effect is exacerbated by the presence of a screen between the audience and the action. The audience is generally on the outside, looking in. However, many movies, most famously the Deadpool movies, broke the fourth wall to comment with the audience on the action.

Interactive television, in a way, allows the audience to comment back. By being in control of the action, the audience has a direct effect on the events of the show. Choices made affect other choices in the future, leading to multiple endings that make the viewer feel like part of the story. In the case of You vs. Wild, there is a survival element to it, and yes, sometimes Bear himself has to be rescued by emergency crew while in the process of navigating the wilderness to rescue someone else. The risk the story ends prematurely due to a really wrong decision does exist. This raises the stakes for the viewer, while also providing even more endings to find.

The effect is created by the choices offered. Just like in the old Choose Your Own Adventure books, each choice a viewer makes takes them to a different time in the movie. This is why interactive movies don’t have the progress bar that regular movies do. They jump around the movie based on the selection you, the viewer, make to deliver a customized viewing experience. Instead of yelling at the screen to characters we feel are making foolish decisions in the context of the movie, we get to make those decisions for them and experience the rewards and consequences with them.

Bandersnatch and You vs. Wild are two great examples of how this concept can work for an adult audience. Horror and suspense lend themselves naturally to an interactive interface, but reality shows can allow us to sightsee and experience the world on our own terms while teaching us something new along the way. The popularity of Bandersnatch hints at a future of entertainment of this type being available soon. You vs. Wild is the only interactive title released since then, but with the billions Netflix has invested in its shows, more are bound to be produced.

Meanwhile, interactive shows provide unique educational opportunities for kids to learn while they watch. Carmen Sandiego has always stolen historical items, but these days kids can direct what she steals and learn about each item. Other educational shows can teach them about social interactions, academic topics like science and history, or even survival skills like in You vs. Wild. Right now the offerings for kids are mostly pure entertainment, but the possibilities are endless.

Streaming is in its infancy, so this technology will get more sophisticated as new methods of delivering interactive content are created. Most of the shows only offer viewers one of two options, but eventually more options will be available leading to more possible endings and longer films for viewers to watch. Perhaps titles that can appear in theaters will be released eventually as ways for entire auditoriums to choose outcomes are developed.

This wouldn’t be possible without the Internet. As a group experience, the entire audience would have a say, while streaming at home allows us to tailor the plot of the movie ourselves. Either way, it would require connections directly to the content, which Netflix has provided through direct streaming to your computer. Plus, eventually, other services will catch on and make their own interactive content. YouTube already had a method where viewers could click on the link representing their choice, which would start a new video, but Netflix’s technology improved on the system by using the formula that started it all back in the 1980s.

To enjoy interactive content on Netflix and in the future, viewers will need reliable high-speed Internet. Streaming services are becoming a popular complement to cable television, and interactive videos for kids, families, and adults are exclusive to them. Even the ones that stream through your television will probably need the Internet to be viewed, so you want to ensure you have the best connection available to you. Just tell our comparison site where you are, and we can show you all the providers who service your area, as well as their packages and rates. This way, you can get the connection you need to enjoy the interactive content you want to see.