Early forms of Interactive TV

Way back in the mists of time, I did my secondary-school work experience at the BBC. Specifically, Children's BBC. Every day for a couple of weeks, I'd commute into White City, wander those hallowed halls, sit at a desk, and...

You know... I can't remember! I know I got to visit the "Broom Cupboard", and I'm pretty sure I did a lot of data entry, oh - and I sat in a meeting for "Two-Way TV".

These were the early days of the consumer Internet. The WWW was still brand new and it wasn't certain that it would be the dominant communications medium of the future. Digital TV had just launched in the UK and users were regularly exhorted to "press the red button now!" Doing so would bring up an MHEG page which acted as a sort of fancy teletext.

But, crucially, it was one way. You could do a quiz via red button, but there was no way to send your answers back to the broadcaster.

Two-Way TV aimed to change that. My memories are hazy, but I'm pretty sure it was a flimsy grey box which (somehow) integrated with your OnDigital TV Box and a modem. If you were watching "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" you could play along at home, send in your answers in realtime, and win REAL CASH PRIZES!!!

That was their pitch - you can read their now defunct website. UK broadcasters held trials but, ultimately decided to go for interaction via premium rate phone numbers. That led to Two-Way TV going bust. And, of course, sowed the seeds of a huge scandal in TV-land.

But that wasn't the only form of interaction that broadcasters trialled.

In the year 1999, Children's BBC launched a TV show called "Sub-Zero". Hardly anyone remembers it - indeed there's barely a paragraph on Wikipedia. It doesn't exist on YouTube. Essentially, it was kids' version of The Crystal Maze. With some kids taking part via webcams!

Here's a brief clip of the first episode of the second series - 27th February, 2000:

Not exactly impressive, but pretty good for a minimum viable product.

By the second episode, 5th March, the producers were comfortable enough with the technology to support four simultaneous participants!

The TV presenter is facing a screen. Displayed on it are four windows - each showing a low resolution stream of a viewer at home.

I'm grateful to the archivists and researchers at the British Universities and Colleges Film and Video Council for tracking down and digitising the episodes.

Webcams of that vintage - as you can see - were low resolution. A max of 640x480, but more likely to be 320x240. Which was fine because the fastest dial-up speed was 56kbps. The ability to transmit video and sound simultaneously was non-existent - hence having the kids on separate phones for voice.

I think it is a fascinating glimpse into the way audience participation developed. Moving from the ubiquitous phone-in to juddery video-in.

By October 2000, Tomorrow's World were interviewing people via webcam.

Nowadays our TV screens are full of pundits Zooming in from home. I don't know if Sub-Zero was the first UK show to use webcams for audience participation - but it was certainly an early pioneer. They proved that it was viable to have multiple video calls being muxed into a TV show. Sure, it was a little shonky, but 20 years later it still looks futuristic.

Was there anything earlier than 2000?

On UK TV? I don't think so.

In the USA, four months prior to Sub-Zero, one of the inventors of the first live camera on the web was interviewed on a cable TV show called ZDTV. Indeed, ZDTV had users calling in via webcam+phone from around mid-1999

In 1995, CNET's Cable TV show described a webcam - but they didn't stream any humans, just a view of San Francisco.

If you know of an earlier example of people participating in a TV show via webcam, please let me know!


Many thanks to James O'Malley for leading me down this rabbit hole. Hasn't he grown!?

4 thoughts on “Early forms of Interactive TV

  1. says:

    @Edent Interesting side-note on modems. In the 1980s when networks first started to become widespread, some futurists argued that you would never need a modem faster than 1200 baud because you couldn't read text any faster than that.

  2. Here is a search of the Radio Times archive for "webcam", sorted by earliest first:


    Some of the early entries seem to be discussions of webcams (including one on the radio!) rather then demos of them. However, the first is for 26 May 2001.

    The earliest entry for "web-cam", with a space or hyphen, is in 2006.

    This is hardly definitive, though as the entries for Sub Zero do not include the word in any form. The earliest entry is:


  3. says:

    @Edent I'm 100% sure that Live & Kicking had a call-in game using videophones (that they presumably loaned out to people) in the mid-nineties. I found a couple of references to this below. The segment was apparently called Haunted House and was hosted by John Barrowman. He was on L&K between 1993 and 1995. I can't find any videos of it though. https://forums.digitalspy.com/discussion/237933/live-and-kicking-l-k https://robinblamires26.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/saturday_mornings.pdf
    Live and Kicking (L&K)

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