Public Involvement Techniques
4.C.a - Interactive Television
What is interactive television?
Interactive television is a person-to-person technique
that allows two-way communication. Unlike conventional one-way television
(TV) or radio broadcasts, most interactive TV enables viewers to
respond by voice telephone or computer connected to an appropriate
hosting service (Internet Service Provider, special on-line bulletin
board, chat room, etc.). A further refinement of the technology
uses sophisticated equipment, TV cameras, and special connections
at both ends so that participants can see and hear one another.
This kind of interactive TV is usually limited to small groups for
Interactive television is characterized as follows:
- A television broadcast includes telephone numbers or computer
addresses to use in responding;
- Participants use telephones or computers to comment or ask
- Staff is available to record comments or respond to questions.
Electronic town meetings are a good example, because
large numbers of people participate directly from their homes or
other designated locations. A meeting, presentation, or panel discussion
is held in a central location with an audience, while a TV crew
records and broadcasts the proceedings over local cable. Home viewers
phone in questions for discussion leaders to answer—a format
similar to a talk-radio call-in program. The Southern California
Association of Governments uses interactive television to reduce
the distance the public has to travel to participate in meetings.
Conferencing equipment is placed at central locations in each of
the six counties it serves.
Why is it useful?
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Interactive TV provides direct or immediate knowledge of what transpired
at a public meeting, which is useful for some people compared with
a written summary document. Interactive TV helps people grasp a
planning concept, understand complex programs, and absorb large
amounts of information quickly. Television is an integral part of
many peoples lives. It attracts broader participation in a
public involvement program. Electronic town meetings, for instance,
may actively engage couch potatoes who would otherwise
not participate in civic affairs.
Electronic town meetings increase awareness about
a project or program. They are very useful for developing consensus
across a broad range of participants. They provide a large segment
of the population with direct, timely access to key decision-makers.
Interactive TV offers the immediacy of a live
broadcast. During a broadcast, participants at home respond
or participate via telephone. They then see and hear that their
concerns are being addressed, and possibly respond further.
Town meeting audiences can convene in several locations.
With interactive TV, large groups may take part at a central location
while numerous individuals or small groups participate from homes
or satellite meeting halls. The Central Puget Sound Regional Transit
Authority (RTA) in Seattle held a Satellite Summit prior to adopting
a proposed ballot measure on a major new transit system. From a
central studio, the RTA board addressed audiences at five remote
locations as well as home viewers via cable TV. Audience members
at remote sites were able to pose questions and offer suggestions
directly to the board. A videotape of the event was sent to local
libraries for reference by those people unable to participate at
broadcast time. (See Video
Informal surveys can be a central element in interactive
TV. Viewers use telephones to register approval or disapproval
on a specific project or issue under discussion. Results are tabulated
and shown on the program, perhaps generating additional responses.
(See Public Opinion Surveys.)
Does it have special uses?
Interactive TV is especially useful for public presentations.
Information can be disseminated at regular intervals to the audience
at their homes.
Interactive television can target a specific audience.
Broadcasts can reach specialized audiences through non-English language
or other special media channels or shows. Berks Community Television
in Reading, Pennsylvania, is a two-way cable television program
designed to reach seniors, a special use of the technology for a
A broadcast helps an agency reach a wider audience
than it might otherwise find. It increases both awareness and inclusiveness.
Traditional broadcast technology is used for limited educational
and outreach purposes, but the incorporation of two-way communication
through interactive technology expands the participatory aspect
of the medium. To increase public participation in regional transportation
planning, Orange County replaced a public hearing with a Community
Dialogue, sponsored by the Huntington Beach City Council Chamber.
A talk-show format was used to interview transportation and land
use planners about the impact of growth on the future of Southern
California. Questions from an in-studio audience and call-in viewers
were answered live on television. The show was run from 7:00-9:00
PM on a weeknight and simultaneously cablecast in nine different
cities close to Huntington Beach. In addition, the cable company
aired the program two more times during the day. The cable company
estimated that more than 7,500 people watched the show.
A broadcast allows instant feedback that can be shared
with the entire community. Because people participate from their
own homes, they do not need to arrange for childcare or worry about
transportation or proper appearance.
Who participates? And how?
An interactive TV program involves many people—particularly
if the program is well publicized. Broadcasts on a major local or
regional channel stand the best chance of reaching many viewers
for a program on transportation planning or project development.
Cable TV subscribers are major users. Many public
agencies have access to cable TV channels over which electronic
town meetings may be carried. Any local person with access to such
cable services and a telephone line may participate. Participation
is limited in areas without cable access or if people do not subscribe
to the service.
Viewers call the TV station during a broadcast
to register an opinion or comment. Viewers may call repeatedly if
they do not receive a response or if they feel that the response
Viewer responses are recorded on the voice track
of a videotape of a program. As a program is being taped, a viewer
calls in and converses with an agency person at the TV studio. The
video equipment picks up both ends of the conversation. Responses
may also be recorded, either automatically by an answering device
or in person by agency staff answering telephone calls and recording
responses in writing or on computer.
Viewer input may provide immediate feedback. Calls
from viewers inform the studio and home audiences of preference
responses, survey results, or participant concerns.
How do agencies use the output?
Viewer comments help an agency gauge the level of community
interest and concern about transportation issues. Heated,
lively debate and strongly worded comments signal a controversial
topic and indicate that the agency needs to reach out in other ways
to the full array of concerned parties.
Viewer feedback also helps an agency identify community
perceptions about critical issues, impacts that are most
sensitive, alternatives that are preferred or proposed, and ways
to improve plans and make responsive decisions. In metropolitan
planning, an agency can use viewers comments to identify differences
of opinion and needs in subareas of a region or among types of interest
groups. To get a clear sense of how public opinion is changing over
the course of a project, a record of comments serves as a benchmark
that can be compared with past or future responses. Such reference
points assist an agency in evaluating long-term program goals or
objectives and reassessing meeting techniques.
Viewer input may be used to expand mailing lists.
To increase the availability of transportation information, for
instance, names and addresses of respondents are registered along
with their questions and concerns. (See Mailing
Skilled professionals are required. Interactive
TV demands the special technical skills of studio crews and facilitators
who coordinate feedback through a telephone company. Although conventional
presentation needs and requirements of a public meeting come into
play, a skilled moderator for the program is also required.
Agencies sponsor regular programs. Vermont Interactive
Television shows live, two-way programs on subjects such as early
childhood and family support meetings, technical mathematics, and
Vermont history and government. It combines education with participatory
technologies to bring together thousands of participants throughout
a largely rural State.
What are the costs?
Interactive TV such as an electronic town meeting is expensive.
The sophisticated equipment and skilled operator requirements raise
costs. Contracting services are necessary for high-speed digital
telephone lines to accommodate incoming calls and instantly tabulate
data. An agency with access to a public TV channel may be able to
reduce costs. For example, community access cable channels and/or
schools with broadcast media facilities, both of which have public
service missions, may be able to be used.
How is interactive television organized?
Cooperation from a local TV station is essential. A local station
such as a local access cable channel or a local government or college
station reaches most, if not all, homes in a broad area. A broadcast
or town meeting event must be publicized on the station as well
as in other print and electronic media so that people know when
to tune in. A local TV station may also recommend a prominent media
personality to moderate the program, keep discussion moving, and
enliven the program. University stations might include student production
of public meetings on interactive TV as part of the curriculum.
Technical assistance on broadcasting is essential.
Local stations are likely to be conversant with interactive techniques
or can help find the right contacts.
Comparison with a public meeting or hearing is useful
as a starting point. Many public agencies are versed in the logistical
requirements and strategic use of such meetings. (See Public
Meetings/Hearings.) A presentation of essential facts about
the project or program provides a springboard from which discussion
takes place. However, incorporation of interaction affects the program
format and shapes the agenda to reach out to a larger audience.
How is it used with other techniques?
Interactive TV supplements a broader outreach program.
It cannot be an agencys sole means of communication with the
public. Due to costs and time constraints, interactive TV may accent
or bring to culmination a larger effort to inform the public. However,
it also can be useful as a survey of public reactions to an issue.
(See Public Opinion Surveys.)
It can function as a large-scale public meeting. (See Public
Meetings/Hearings.) Savannah, Georgia, broadcasts several meetings
on the same topic from different locations with trained facilitators
and programmers. Home viewers call in to respond, adding a sense
of dynamic energy to the process.
What are the drawbacks?
Perceptions of the meaningfulness of participation via
TV vary. Participants may doubt that a TV program has lasting
impact. As is true with any new technology, people sometimes resent
its use, because they perceive it as a replacement for personal
Imbalance is magnified by live TV. With any project
or program, the danger arises that only one or a few interests will
participate and that the dialogue will not accurately reflect the
full array or relative strength of community opinions. Callers may
want to grandstand a particular issue. Agencies can limit speaking
times but cannot deny a determined individual the opportunity to
speak. This emphasizes the importance of agency outreach to the
full array of community interests.
Broadcast adds pressure for quick decisions. Television
events often put decision-makers in direct contact with members
of the community, and the community may want immediate decisions.
One transit agency held an open house for a major investment study
that was heavily attended by a community that opposed one alternative.
The community group arranged for the meeting with agency and legislative
leaders to be broadcast in a hearing format over a local TV channel.
During the meeting, a speaker (with vocal support from the crowd)
demanded a satisfactory decision from the agency and the legislators
in two weeks, rather than the several months scheduled in the study
Input from interactive TV, like that from informal surveys,
is not statistically representative. Only interested people
participate, and cable viewership in many areas is minimal. Broadcast
responses supplement but do not substitute for more formal survey
data as an accurate way to gauge public reaction. (See Public
Is interactive television flexible?
Interactive television is inherently flexible for verbal
presentations. An agency spokesperson agency can update
the community on a project or a planning process. Adding graphics
to a presentation, however, requires additional time and effort.
Interactive TV is as flexible as other public meeting formats.
However, the sponsoring agency is limited to times available on
a stations program schedule.
When is it used most effectively?
Electronic town meetings are most effective at an important
juncture when focused, relevant public input is needed.
The Central Puget Sound RTA, in partnership with a local commercial
station, presented a two-hour, prime time program on its proposed
rapid transit system. Moderated by a local media personality, the
program showed features of transit systems from other cities. A
100-person audience was able to show approval or disapproval for
various options via hand-held opinion meters that scored opinions
on a scale of one to ten. A panel of experts and critics kept the
Interactive television can continually update transportation
information. A cable TV program can offer a telephone number
to call for further information. Its use is especially valuable
for conveying images or visual representations of ideas, including
renderings and animations of existing and potential conditions.
Interactive television can build momentum for
or against an improvement. This is particularly important when funding
sources are in question. However, project opponents can also hijack
that momentum. Political leaders who make budget decisions pay attention
to high-profile events that reach a broad segment of their constituencies.
For further information:
Association of Governments
Association of Governments Case Study
|Alaska Department of
|Berks Community Television
|Central Puget Sound Regional Transit Authority,
|Chatham Urban Transportation Study, Chatham CountySavannah,
|Georgia Department of Transportation
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