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A Conversation With: ITVT Co-Founder Tracy Swedlow

The founder of Interactive TV Today and host of the TV of Tomorrow Show discusses her early careers in technology and theater, and what led her to launch one of the industry's most-prestigious conferences.

The founder of Interactive TV Today and host of the TV of Tomorrow Show discusses her early careers in technology and theater, and what led her to launch one of the industry's most-prestigious conferences.

Interactive TV Today and TV of Tomorrow Show founder and host Tracy Swedlow. (Photo via LinkedIn)
Interactive TV Today and TV of Tomorrow Show founder and host Tracy Swedlow. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Next week, hundreds of media, entertainment and technology executives and stakeholders will come together at a former U.S. Army installation in the middle of San Francisco to lay out plans for the future of technology and television.

It might be difficult to believe now, but there was a time when conferences were siloed by specific industries within those realms: Broadcasters and cable executives went to broadcasting trade shows in Washington. Marketers and advertisers attended the Upfronts in New York City. Technologists gushed over new gadgets at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas. Rarely did the industry shows veer outside their lane, even though the industry itself was rapidly changing.

Tracy Swedlow knew early on the sectors were blending together — and that high-level stakeholders from each industry needed to come together to exchange their ideas. But nothing like that existed when Swedlow first dreamt up the idea in the late 1990s — and, while each industry has its own awards show to honor excellence within their sector, there was nothing to recognize those who were reaching across different industries to bring the future into the present.

Rallying the audience she developed through her newsletter, Interactive TV Today (ITVT), Swedlow launched the first awards show in the early 2000s to recognize the perceptive industry leaders who were charting the course for the things we now take for granted — digital broadcast television, streaming video, addressable marketing, shoppable advertising, things like that. The awards ceremony eventually grew to become a regular, bi-coastal event called the TV of Tomorrow Show (TVOT), where ambitous thought leaders assemble to offer ideas on the future of television, video, data and advertising.

Swedlow has hosted nearly two dozen ITVT Awards for Leadership gala, and produced more than 30 TVOT events over the past two decades. This year’s show, scheduled to start on March 27, will bring executives and visionaries from a wide range of recognizable companies, including Adeia, Allen Media Group, AMC Networks, Cineverse, Comcast, Comscore, DirecTV, Fabric Media, Fox, Gray Television, Hearst Television, LG Electronics, Nielsen Media Research, Revolt, Roku, Sinclair Broadcasting, Televisa Univision, Vevo, Vizio, the Walt Disney Company, Warner Bros Discovery, Xumo, Yahoo! and YouTube — just to name a few.

The Desk spoke with Swedlow last week about her early career, her decision to cover the technology and media space, and how it led to the development of the ITVT and the TVOT Show.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and flow, and is presented without advertisements for a limited time by The Desk: Pro Access. Sign up for The Desk: Pro Access on Patreon to read a selection of news and features, without pop-ups or ads, plus access to select source material associated with our enterprise-level reporting.

Matthew Keys, The Desk: Let’s start off with your background: Tell me a little bit about yourself, before you started your company behind your newsletter and the TV of Tomorrow Show?

Tracy Swedlow, ITVT & TVOT Show: I start off wanting to become a theater director. I came out to San Francisco after getting my Master’s Degree at Northwestern University. I came out to attend U.C. Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. and a fellowship in directing.

This was at a time when the Internet and virtual reality were just starting. My whole life, I’ve always been interested in new media and new technology — anything futuristic, tomorrow-istic. And San Francisco was the crucible of this activity.

I wound up working for a video production company here in town that did video industrials, and the CEO, Steve Michelson, was very busy, well-connected and supportive. I started hearing about virtual reality, and got involved with the VR community, where people were using the term “cyber” and things like that. It was the early days after all.

I quickly found out that, as a journalist, you get into different events for free. So, that’s what I did — I could write, I was curious, and I managed to get myself into events for free. I went down to CyberArts in Pasadena, and the three days I spent there changed my life. There were a bunch of VR people investing stuff.

I became one of the first journalists to really cover the VR space — I was the first to cover VRML, the virtual reality markup language derived from HTML (the coding language behind the websites on the Internet).

Tracy Swedlow's inaugural column on virtual reality in the April 1996 edition of "Multimedia World." (Courtesy photo)
Tracy Swedlow’s inaugural column on virtual reality in the April 1996 edition of “Multimedia World.” (Courtesy photo)

The Desk: Were you writing for yourself, your own website, or were you writing for a company or as a freelancer?

Tracy Swedlow: It’s a long story, but I met this person, Louis Brill, and he became my mentor. He helped me get gigs for VR magazines — I wrote for VR World and VR Magazine. Naturally, was able to go to all the VR events and meet interesting people. That was my goal.

The Desk: So, how did you go from covering virtual reality to the television and media space?

Tracy Swedlow: Well, it was the early 1990s, and I was working for Steve Michelson and writing about VR.  I started hearing things about digital video and television — things like the MPEG 1 and MPEG 2 codecs — and I started to believe that digital television was going to be a big thing so I started following that topic as well a lot.

I wound up getting laid off from the production company because of the economic recession  that occurred in the early 90’s. All that time, I continued to follow virtual reality and digital television and other things that interested me. I continued covering both topics through other publications and also worked in Silicon Valley when everything was emerging and it was exciting. I wound up working at Apple on their eWorld team, and was able to observe teams that developed QuickTime and QuickTime VR in other parts of the Apple complex. All this gave me insight into these early technologies like discussion lists, communities and the emergence of streaming and VR.

I was also working for George Coates, the experimental theater empressario at the time in San Francisco. He incorporated things like projected 3-D imagery, film, the Internet and 3D imagery into live theater and opera productions.

The Desk: What was the most-interesting thing about doing experimental theater, and how did that intersect with your day job covering all these technology companies that were in the same area producing the technology that you could incorporate into your shows?

Tracy Swedlow: A lot of these companies that I was working for were funding George Coates’ stuff (e.g. Apple, Silicon Graphics and others). It would be interesting to see why they were funding him, and then to see the experimental product in the theater. I was involved in production management, assisting the production manager, and it was fantastic to meet the innovative artists who, at that time, were taking all this new technology and experiment with it at night. George doesn’t produce theater anymore, but he’s still a great hero of mine.

Eventually, I had to stop doing that, because I had to be employed full-time. So, I started working as a new media editor for Multimedia World, which was owned by IMG. My beat was new media and eventually e-commerce. I felt pretty lucky that I could be paid to cover all of these innovative things — VR, digital TV, interactivity, all of that stuff. I went to my editor, and I remember telling him that ecommerce, most of all, was going to be huge. He said, well, I don’t think it’s going to go anywhere — we’re not going to cover those topics anymore. I’m going to put you on printers.

The Desk: On printers? Like — office machine printers?

Tracy Swedlow: Yes! I told him, you’re crazy. E-commerce is going to become the biggest thing you’ve ever seen.

The Desk: So — wait, did you wind up covering printers? 

Tracy Swedlow: No, not for long, actually. I was at Multimedia World which merged with PC World. Then, I left PC World and wound up working for, which was doing e-mail discussion lists (i.e. online communities). I started an e-mail newsletter of my own focused on television because I didn’t see one anywhere else so I thought I’d just start one. I was actually forming a company with some guys who were ex-Web TV engineers, but it was harder for them to just start something, so I started the newsletter.

This was around 1998. I had written articles about interactivity and television throughout the 1990s, around the time that bulletin boards were shifting to e-mail lists, and that was’s business model. (Editor’s note: was acquired by Yahoo! in 2000 and became Yahoo! Groups. Yahoo! Groups was shut down in 2020, and much of the content from it and eGroups was purged from the Internet.)

I oversaw all the editorial stuff going on through all the e-mail lists, and some of them got really specific with certain requirements to join a list. For example, there was one group of conservative women who wore bonnets who wanted to talk about their computers. I was totally fascinated by these communities and their fandoms. I was also interested in television, and while working at, I started my own mailing list that covered the emergence of television — not just digital television, but interactive television. At first, it was called Jet Planet, and then it became ITVT, which stands for Interactive TV Today, which I still use.

The masthead of an edition of PC World magazine. (Courtesy photo)
The masthead of an edition of “PC World” magazine. (Courtesy photo)

The Desk: You know, I feel like there are parallels between the direction you took in your career and the direction I took in mine. I started off in a totally different industry that was aligned with communications and media — I started in local TV, working for the lowest-rated station in the market, and worked my way up to one of the largest news organizations in the world, in a really short amount of time. And I got pretty burned out on working for companies that were not moving at the same pace I was — there were just a lot of hurdles to jump through in order to pursue different things that I thought were really interesting. Eventually, I thought, maybe I could do this on my own — and then, the pandemic hit, and that really forced me to shift gears. I couldn’t get a job anywhere. No one could. No one was working, everyone was working from home. And I thought, okay, maybe this is life telling me to go start my own thing. I had started The Desk under a different name as a side project in 2013, we’re coming up on our 11th year, and it was finally incorporated into my own company three years ago. 

So, as I’m hearing you recount your career, I’m thinking, here’s this very successful person who managed to make it on her own, right? And, of course, you had help along the way — everyone has help along the way.

Tracy Swedlow: Yes, my husband, Richard Washbourne, has been around the whole time and we’re partners on the business. He is deeply involved in everything we do at ITVT/TVOT, though he prefers to be behind-the-scenes. If you’re at one of our TVOT events, he loves introducing people!

The Desk: But you took the initiative to start your own newsletter, to cover something that you found fascinating, at a time when no one was. You believed it was going to be big. You let your intuition be your guide on a lot of the decision you made along the way, and it got you to where you are today.

I find that to be really admirable. I think the smartest people in the room are the ones who follow their intuition — maybe they don’t go work for themselves, but they do trust their gut, they don’t let that hold them back, they tend to be very multi-faceted…

Tracy Swedlow: You have to. For example: I’ve written a musical right now, in my non-spare time, about the origin of television, which started in San Francisco in 1927.

The Desk: …a lot of people get pigeonholed into being one thing, or good at one thing, right? And I think people that go out and pursue different things are really interesting.

So, how does all of this manifest itself into the TV of Tomorrow Show? It’s one thing to put out a well-received newsletter, but it’s a totally different thing to put on events.

Tracy Swedlow: So, because of my producing and directing background, I always knew I could pull something like that off. The newsletter was going and going, and I kept hearing about all of these different events that were centered around singular topics — broadcast, cable, satellite, mobile phones. I thought, if there’s an event for interactive TV, everyone has to be there because ITV requires all the platforms and services to collaborate.

So, when 2004 came around, I felt it was the right time to try something like that. The first concept was an awards show, because no one was honoring the people who were transcending those different sectors — and I just thought, okay, we’ve got to do it, we’ve got to recognize the incredible people that we’re covering all the time. The first awards show was a co-located event at the NCTA in New Orleans.

So, the first awards show was like a cocktail party, and I’m still in touch with a lot of the people who attended.

Within two or three years, I realized we needed to do our own event because, again, no one was really doing an event that incorporated all the different stakeholders — television, mobile, design, measurement, tracking data, all of this stuff. Streaming was just starting to become a thing, but broadcast, cable and satellite were still prominent. And I really felt it was important to do an event where everyone, from all different sides, could meet in person and talk with one another. I felt strongly that was the way to move things forward.

My husband likes to remind me that it was similar to the tradition of how women, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and beyond used to run salons. Women didn’t really have a lot of power then, but they were able to create conversations with people they found interesting. That’s what I did — and that’s what I’m still doing.

The Desk: Tell me about the first event you put on.

Tracy Swedlow: It was 2007, and I was pregnant that year — nobody knew I was pregnant. Some advice: Do not be pregnant and try to put together a large-scale event at the same time. It is so stressful the night before an event, one that you never thought you’d actually see happen, and you’re stressed because you’re not sure if the whole thing will fall apart. You’re stressed because of all the planning and execution you have to do. Don’t be pregnant before an event.

The Desk: I will try my best. But that’s a big reason why I’d rather sponsor events, I don’t have much interest in putting one on, myself.

Tracy Swedlow: Exactly. I couldn’t even fall asleep. I was so stressed; I had a lot of adrenaline going. But it turned out to be successful, people really enjoyed it, and we eventually started doing two of them per year — one in San Francisco, the other in New York City. We would take a train to put on the event in New York City, and then drive back, because I’m fearful of flying.

We did that for years, and then, the pandemic hit. My production team and I quickly pivoted to live streaming, and we held our first virtual TVOT across a full week! I had to completely shift my production and audiovisual teams to live-streaming, and we did that for five hours a day, for a whole week. Now, of course, we’ve returned to in-person events, but the pivot to live streaming allowed us to do things like TVOT Connect, a networking group we host twice a month, virtually on Thursdays. It’s like a mini TVOT for now — we host people on topics of global interest, and we allow people to chat and be on camera. It’s been very interesting, and it took a lot of work to get to that point.

But whether it’s over the Web or in-person, we have a very good reputation with our events. People tell us we’re an extremely high-quality conference. The conversations we have — they’re not sales pitches. Even if they are sponsored, they’re highly editorial. We work very hard, behind the scenes to help people craft their sessions — and we do an enormous amount of research before the event, because we want to make sure what we’re doing is important.

Media executives at the TV of Tomorrow Show in 2023.
Media and entertainment executives participate at the TV of Tomorrow Show in San Francisco. (Courtesy photo via LinkedIn)

The Desk: What is some feedback you get from those shows? What are the things people tell you they walk away with — an experience or a thought? 

Tracy Swedlow: People feel we’re very high-quality. It doesn’t come across as corporate — it has a very creative feel to it. We know that, behind the scenes, at our shows, people have made some important deals, which is owed to the fact that it’s a very warm, friendly environment. People have said I come across as a den mother or community leader, and someone remarked a few days ago that one of the things they liked about me was that I wasn’t just an event producer, but that I really seem to care about this stuff. Which I do.

The Desk: I think that definitely comes across. You can always tell when you’re in a room full of creative people who are interested in exchanging ideas, versus at an event that feels like a corporate back massage. I used to write for a publication that covered the radio industry, and one of the things that frustrated me was that the coverage was not very solutions-oriented or forward-looking — it was more about nurturing a business model that isn’t really working anymore, and it really seemed like they were afraid to embrace the idea that it wasn’t working. It would have been better to pursue stories that were oriented around the idea of trying new things, and seeing which of those strategies panned out. But that isn’t happening.

Tracy Swedlow: I tell people that during these events. I tell them that during my Televisionation podcast interviews , where I do my own interviews and help produce things like Friday Fireside and Talk Back to Television. Through these channels and interviews, I try push people to try to embrace new things, to pursue the things that I think would be good to pursue. I tend to give away my ideas, because I don’t have time to do startups — but I really want to be proactive in the industry, and I try to be proactive through my events.

The Desk: What I’m getting from this is, there’s a lot of thought and effort put into this, and you want your events to reflect that.

Tracy Swedlow: Yes. It’s me and my husband, Richard, who I’ve been working with for many years — we co-own TMRW Corp, which is the company that owns ITVT, our organization that provides news, insights, community, and events – including TVOT and the ITVT Awards for Leadership. We’re celebrating our 20th awards show this year, too.

We also do a lot of work to make our events creative and fun. We also source high-quality food from local restaurants here in San Francisco.. At this upcoming event, I’m going to have fortune cookies from our famous fortune cookie factory and Hamantaschen because this year’s event happens around the Jewish holiday Purim. We’ll also have authentic Cadbury Creme Eggs because the event is close to Easter, which is the last weekend of March this year, and we might have a few other surprises.

But, to answer your original question, the things that people take away is that our events are informative, interesting, and warm and friendly. They’re also densely populated with the right people in the room. Everyone there is someone they need to have a meeting with, including people they didn’t even know they needed to meet.

The TV of Tomorrow Show at the General’s Residence within Fort Mason in San Francisco over the course of two full days, starting Wednesday, March 27. To learn more about the show, and to register for tickets, click or tap here.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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