The post-programme live web chat, where viewers are invited online to grill the people responsible for the show they've just watched, is a truly 21st-century idea. It involves the Internet, is interactive and provides instant information gratification. With terrestrial TV facing a growing range of competitors - from PCs and game consoles to satellite, cable, DVD and the social cocaine of the text message - it needs all the new tricks it can muster. This one may turn out to be an extremely useful addition.
Each channel has its own approach to the format. The BBC service simply invites participants to submit questions, which are then sorted by the host and put to the programme maker. Channel 4, however, offers two windows: 'the Stage', where the questions are delivered to the special guest, and 'the Auditorium', where you can type in comments to a group of fellow viewers - like any other chat room.
The Auditorium, where raw opinion surfaces uncensored, is a fascinating part of the experience. What strikes you immediately is the amount of personal baggage people bring to their TV viewing. Take, for example, the chat session for C4's riveting Gas Attack, a documentary-style drama in which a refugee community in Glasgow is infected with anthrax by white supremacists. As soon as the chat opens, a viewer named 'Sylvia' inexplicably erupts with 'Channel 4 is claiming only white people are racist!' Another viewer, equally mystifyingly, believes the programme isn't about racism at all, it's just about the effects of anthrax (and then goes on to explain why the writer's treatment of the disease is unrealistic). Another asks if any other viewers have noticed the similarities between Gas Attack and a recent Batman comic named Contagion. Sometimes it feels as if people come here merely to air their own theories, preferences and areas of specialist knowledge, with the programme providing little more than a useful jumping-off point. But that's the Internet all over.
To most people, however, the Q&A session with director/producer/actor is the focal point - and it provides a multitude of services. There's the opportunity to get details not covered in the programme itself, or to catch up on events that may have transpired since filming. Sometimes it can be pretty lightweight. When C4 ran a chat with Jane and Francis from cult dating show Perfect Match, most people just wanted to know if the couple were still together. Similarly Louis Theroux is asked about his girlfriend, Tim Roth about the 'real' Quentin Tarantino, and Dane Bowers about the most famous people in his mobile phone memory ('Victoria and David Beckham, Bryan from Westlife, Lee from Steps, and Joanna Taylor from Hollyoaks'). Web chats can work like interactive gossip columns. They provide an instant Hello! fix, but free of charge and straight from the horse's mouth..
The immediacy of information is especially vital with more serious topics. After Saira Shah's harrowing Beneath the Veil - a documentary looking into the lives of women under the Taliban regime - what most viewers wanted was to know if there was anything they could do to help. Shah provided a website address for RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan - www.rawa.org) and invited viewers to email the group with messages of support. This was done within ten minutes of the programme finishing, while images of despair were still fresh in the minds of viewers. For the political film-maker chat gives another half-hour on the soapbox, but this time with an intimate audience hungry for detail. It also offers a chance instantly to gauge public opinion and to justify content - hopefully preventing the sort of knee-jerk 'disgusted from Tunbridge Wells' switchboard jamming that can follow controversial programming. Sam Kingsley, producer of Gas Attack, was asked if he felt it was responsible to show the film, given the current political climate. 'It's a responsible piece of film-making and it's about showing people the full horror of what could happen if we were subjected to an anthrax attack. It serves as a warning', was the curt reply.
Finally, for the channel organizing the chat it's about building customer loyalty by providing extra services, driving traffic around the network and, of course, getting in the odd piece of valuable cross promotion. When Dom Joly was asked about his music tastes in a Q&A sesh last year, C4's chat host took the opportunity to plug the Trigger Happy soundtrack - available via the Channel 4 shop 'or you could try to win it at www.channel4.com/play!'.
Beyond the mere physical exchange of information between viewer, TV channel and programme maker, there are deeper, more complex forces at play. The docu-soap frenzy of the late 1990s, which many wrote off as a fad, turned out to be a revolution. People feel more ownership over TV now. It's not just for us, its about us and it stars us. Consequently, the differentiation between viewer and content provider has been permanently blurred. The directors, producers and stars have been hauled down from their pedestals. We demand accountability, we demand personal contact. The web chats are a part of that.
This personal element is especially apparent when the chat features a celebrity. There is a sense that, by encountering 'stars' through the familiar medium of the online chat - a medium through which many computer users have built long-term relationships - a personal connection is made. For the half-hour the actor is online the fan has direct contact, as potent perhaps as seeing a celebrity in the street - except that online you can approach them and ask them questions without getting arrested and having a restraining order slapped on your obsessive arse. On several chats viewers have even brought up long lost or tenuous relationships with the programme makers. A girl tells Martin Freeman from The Office that she went to school with him ('You haven't changed since school, you were great!'), while on the otherwise politically charged Gas Attack a man continually posts inane questions about one of the actors in the film, ending each query with 'because I'm in a room with his daughter right now'. Worrying stuff.
TV chat is still a small-scale venture. C4 reckons its most successful chats so far (Big Brother, Dom Joly, Perfect Match, Beneath the Veil) have attracted between 3,000 and 7,000 viewers. The BBC has seen numbers reach 14,000. But the currently modest turnouts aren't really important. If the concern is to build new services for TV viewers, the chats are a useful experiment, forging links between TV and the Internet that will serve as valuable source material when interactive TV becomes a mainstream reality. And as a market research tool the post-show talk provides an immediate, easy-to-organize hotwire into the minds of viewers. Don't be surprised to find future programming decisions affected by these little online get-togethers. If you don't want your viewing decisions to be dictated by people like Sylvia, you'd better turn up next time you're invited.