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Black Mirror: is interactivity the future of TV?

Black Mirror’s latest episode, ‘Bandersnatch’, lets you control the story through multiple choice. Is this the start of an evolution in the way we watch TV?

Note: this article is entirely spoiler-free – let’s keep the comments the same!

For those not familiar with Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, it’s a series of ‘what if?’ stories that generally explore the dark side of both present and future technology. Think a modern Twilight Zone with smartphones and social media.

The series is known for its innovative ideas and sinister twists, but the latest episode takes things a step further by putting you in control of the experience, with the decisions you make directly affecting the way the story plays out. The version I watched isn’t necessarily the one you did.

Filmed in my home town of Croydon, the episode focuses on a software developer adapting a mutiple-choice novel into a video game in 1984 (yes, the year it’s set is not so subtle!).

I won’t go into the story any further, as that isn’t what this Which? Conversation is about. What struck me about Bandersnatch is how it demands and keeps your attention.

No distractions

I’ve written about ‘dead time‘ before – the pull of your smartphone when you feel like you’ve got nothing to do or there’s a ‘lull’ in normality. I’ve done it myself while watching TV – it can be easy to drift.

But Bandersnatch’s format prevents that. You’re not just a passenger to the episode, you’re in control of it. Even if you’re not majorly keen on the story (and opinion has been divided), the format itself offers a level of intrigue that prevents dead time and keeps you engaged.

In a modern world of distractions and dwindling attention spans, is this the path TV will choose to go down in the future?

The counter argument of course is that any TV show worth its salt will hold your attention, and not rely on any gimmicks to keep you there. But viewing habits are changing and technology advancing – might VR even insert us into a story physically in the future? Maybe that’ll be another episode for the show to tackle.

Televolution

Home entertainment has moved on considerably in the last 20 or so years. VHS tapes became DVDs which turned into blu-rays then moved into streaming.

For more traditional live broadcasts, Sky+’s hard drive recording and rewinding facilities revolutionised the way we watch TV, only to be challenged by subscription streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

With so much competiton for our attention, it’s likely we’ll see more interactive TV which stand out from the crowd. 3D sport may have failed to capture the imagination, but VR is on the rise – the BBC offered this year’s World Cup as a VR experience.

Have you seen Bandersnatch? If so, how did you feel about the experience? Did you feel it added to the entertainment? And what’s the future of TV and home entertainment? I’m intrigued to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Comments
Member

According to “Big Advertising ” USA the latest figures in the USA show that young people there are abandoning TV for web entertainment and that the advertising industry there is having to readjust.
So watching a “big screen ” in the future isn’t the future for many young people.
There is very little on the TV that is worth watching ,endless repeats of ancient American films/drama etc unless you pay up, thats why I watch on satellite foreign country entertainment.
I am afraid I am not “programmed enough” for the future so I am probably the wrong person on this convo to voice an opinion.
It will be interesting to see what young people think of it ?

Member

The obvious question to consider is that of how this is done. Physically someone has to write the different scenarios and physically some people have to act out the possible scenes and endings. Thus the choice of content is limited to what is in “the can”. The only exception to this is the possibility of a live production where the actors improvise as the information arrives and that isn’t television, it’s theatre and virtually impossible to do nationally, since everyone watching will have their own idea of what is to happen next. The format could be presented in the form of multi-choice decisions -limited to what has been filmed and, somehow, that set of choices spliced together, depending where it is sent. This would mean that each multi-choice would be a chunk of story and each chunk separate from the next but able to combine with any other neighbouring chunk in the sequence. Writing that would be a very complicated business, and there has to be a limit to the number of outcomes possible for any situation. It would also have the danger of being disjointed since every story relies on the background before it and if a character has done something then it can not be undone to change the plot. The other danger is that the final product, in all its forms, will be an unwieldy and un-cohesive mess because the writer is trying to do too much with the characters and plot and not following his/her creative instinct.
We live inside the writers world and the dramatists have to reflect that on screen as well as they can. If we don’t like what we see, we don’t have to watch. The interactive bit destroys that synergy and is probably too much like hard work for the average viewer who turns on to be entertained as the drama unfolds.

Member
DerekP says:
4 January 2019

I’ve not watched any of Black Mirror. These days, I hardly watch any TV shows and when I do, I usually only watch them via streaming services.

For example, I’ve just watched and enjoyed this pilot of Space Command:

youtube.com/watch?v=zv-tx3DdKSg

Once I get to like a show, I will usually become a very loyal fan, and continue watching, even if the show degenerates into silly rubbish.

Member

Based on your taste there I’d definitely recommend giving the Black Mirror episode ‘USS Callister’ a go – a bit of a homage to Trek. With a sinister twist, of course. Speaking of Trek, spotted Picardo in the link you gave there – a very underrated actor.

Member
DerekP says:
4 January 2019

Thanks George, I’ll check that out if I get the chance to track it down…

Member

As an aside to this, I remember reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and being upset by the ending, which I felt to be implausible. The film makers also felt this and altered it, with or without permission. This pleased me and I was happy to believe the film. Other film makers have destroyed original works and they have become so distorted that they don’t represent the book they came from. Some distort history for the sake of a good yarn. Multi-choice must be narrowed so that this can not happen to any production that represents what has actually happened, unless we wish to indulge in science fiction or play ‘what if’ games with the truth.

Member
Hannah Burke says:
4 January 2019

I did find it funny that Netflix didn’t ensure the interactive element would be available across all of the platforms it can be streamed on – settled in to watch it on our smart TV when I was home for Christmas, only to be met with an error saying we couldn’t watch it on our device. Probably not the “technology, but too much” angle Brooker and co were going for…

Member

Yes, I had to tune in on my PlayStation 4. Surprised the Netflix app on other TVs wasn’t up to the job