Disney's GO.com marries the Web and TV with its Enhanced Television coverage. First to the party: Football fans.
Convergence between the television and the computer is like the weather-everyone talks about it, but no one does anything about it.
Disney's GO.com is out to change that. This fall, it began Enhanced TV coverage of National Football League games on Disney's ABC and ESPN networks. While most TV sports providers are migrating to the Web, and there are online sports services aplenty, none have yet attempted the level of program-Web integration that ABC and ESPN are pioneering.
"When you see how close this is to real TV programming, you realize that we're inventing our future in program convergence," says Jonathan Leess, vice president of GO.com's Enhanced TV and executive producer of the NFL project.
ESPN.com and such competitors as CBSSportsline.com already offer play-by-play reports of NFL games and other sports events, and rival FOXSports.com has made some strides in convergence at a sister company in Europe. "But no one comes close to what we're doing in synchronizing interactive and programming," Leess says.
Consider the potential benefits of having viewers tuning in and booting up at the same time. By running online content synchronized with its televised images, ABC can tap a new revenue stream from advertisers willing to pay a premium to reinforce their on-air messages. It also may boost online sales of sports-related merchandise from ESPN.com's store.
Most profound, though, is the impact of its gaming element, a modest play-predicting competition named PrimeTime Player. This offers the potential to keep viewers hooked-even into a 35-to-0 blowout between second-tier teams. "Imagine if our interactive game could sustain 12 million players," Leess suggests. "We could have an effect on the Nielsen ratings."
There certainly is a potential army of armchair quarterbacks out there. Leess conservatively figures there are some 18 million households with an online computer in the same room as the TV, though almost none of them use the two in sync. "They're checking stock quotes or chatting on the PC, with the TV on in the background," he says. "We're marrying [the two screens], turning something passive into something active."
Anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 homes use the enhanced service on any given Sunday or Monday night. He estimates some two-thirds of the audience tries its hand at the game and describes feedback as "incredible." "I thought reaction would run 50-50, but 80 to 85 percent of users are enthusiastic," Leess reports.
"They say it's the best thing since Monday Night Football."
The audience is a surprisingly well-seasoned 26 to 46 years old, with connection time averaging an impressive 35 minutes per visit.
PUSH, PULL AND PLAY
Enhanced Television broadcasts, which are available free through ESPN.com and NFL.com, have three major elements: a push channel, a pull channel and a game. Users can pick any one element, but the vast majority opt for a package that includes all three.
The push channel serves up facts, stats, images, quotes and so on. The pull channel offers detailed statistics on demand, such as yards per pass attempt and updated play-by-play. In the PrimeTime Player game, viewers guess which player will carry or catch the ball on the next play-quarterback, running back, tight end or wide receiver. Points are awarded for correct guesses with extra points for yardage gained. Trivia questions offer further chances to run up the score; winners are tallied each quarter.
The game has been used to great promotional effect. As part of a season-long contest during the ESPN telecasts, announcers Paul Maguire and Joe Theismann have each taken an on-air turn at PrimeTime Player. Theismann has skunked Maguire and so, during the Jacksonville-Pittsburgh game earlier this month, control-room staffers were pulling for Maguire to put some points on the board. But he called the wrong play yet again; then Theis-mann ripped off a huge 38-yard run as the control room screamed. Too bad for Maguire, but these promo pops cause big spikes in usage.
There are also revenue-producing opportunities. The lower-left corner of the Enhanced TV screen is devoted to advertising. Several football advertisers have bought synchronous banners shown during commercial breaks, which allow for click-through or bookmarks to their own sites. At other times, the space promotes ABC shows. Cost: $1,000 per banner. "The ones who bought synchronous data are very pleased," says Leess, "and we've established a revenue stream, if not a break-even business."
Sponsorships are available for the half-time trivia contest, which Toyota bought a few times, and for the PrimeTime Player game, a welcome opportunity because the NFL reduced in-game entitlements this season.
There's additional revenue potential as well. "Commerce is a tremendous opportunity, especially since it's tied to what you're watching," Leess says. "After Brett Favre throws a touchdown pass, we could push a message asking if they'd like to buy a [Green Bay] Packers jersey." Perhaps viewers might someday be willing to pay for PrimeTime Player, he adds, if, say, an auto sponsor offered to give the winner a new car.
New features include an online poll that allows viewers to voice their views on, for example, whether Steve Young, San Francisco's concussion-prone quarterback, should retire. (The "medical" opinion of the online audience was, "Hell, no!") A recently launched chat room is growing in popularity, says Leess, but it's not yet what he would call "a real win for us." He explains: "We don't want to distract people from the core business-the television signal. We paid billions of dollars for that."
Coming soon: the ability to build a customized league for the PrimeTime Player game and prizes of ABC/ESPN merchandise for top scorers. Next month, ABC hopes to make a tremendous splash with Enhanced TV telecasts of both the college football championship game and the Super Bowl. Next year, it plans to take Enhanced TV beyond sports into other areas of programming, including the network's savior program, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire; the Oscars; news programming; and daytime TV talk show The View.
The technical side of Enhanced TV needs work. "We're still learning," Leess says. "We don't claim we're there yet." Users with less than a 56K modem or Pentium-class machine won't get full benefit. Connections through American Online are particularly slow and crash-prone. "AOL is not the ideal Internet service provider, but it is the dominant one," Leess says. Other ISPs and local area networks work better, according to the Enhanced TV crew that monitors them all throughout each telecast.
RIVALS TAKE DIFFERENT TACK
While Disney is so far the only company synchronizing Web and TV to offer interactive programming-albeit on two boxes rather than one-its rivals are focused on offering online content that complements TV broadcasts. In fact, full-blown fantasy gaming is turning out to be a killer app for all the online football rivals, including ESPN, even though there is no direct tie between their Web services and network telecasts.
"Our fantasy football is a more compelling product [than PrimeTime Player]," says Steve Snyder, vp of production at Sportsline, which publishes the CBS site and is some 20 percent owned by the network. "It just drives pages and pages and pages. Once you're on it, you'll never leave, and this is a pay product. You'll be flipping through the channels on your DirectTV, trying to see all the plays. If you go to the chat rooms on game day, there's a lot of trash-talking-"That's the only points you'll get today, punk,'-that kind of thing."
Snyder is not above a little trash-talking himself: "Enhanced TV's components and speed could be better, more interactive, more competent. That little pick-the-play thing? Hate it. Very basic. Enhanced TV is kinda nifty, but not something I'm dying to have."
Leess thinks his competitors should put up or shut up when discussing convergence: "I don't expect my competitors to like what we're doing, but they'd better be in [this game]. The Internet is not the perfect platform for interactive TV, but right now it is the only one to reach the masses. I highly doubt they're not concentrating on convergence, but if they're not, it's highly myopic because this is the next big challenge."
Snyder responds: "We're a content company focused solely on the Web. Yeah, we have a TV partner and we're working with them to integrate our content in a more fluid way. We have their studio talent talking about topics of interest, lots of text-based content. We have the best content-we broke the news of Barry Sanders' retirement; we get official stats from the Elias Sports Bureau; we have an archive of 1998 games.
"But the fantasy games are just a monstrous application for us," Snyder continues. "It's the Web-centric mind gathering a community of people around the world."
FOXSports.com also offers a series of fantasy games from a free one-off to a $20 full-season package; wannabe "commissioners" can spend $80 to set up their own leagues, with customizable rules, for up to 30 players. "We've had huge success with fantasy football," says vp Danny Goldberg. "There are probably 1,000 percent more teams playing this year. Our GameTracker lets you track your fantasy team or favorite team, accumulating game stats or season-to-date stats in real time. If you're following Brett Favre and it's at [Chicago's] Soldier Field, 15 degrees and wind at 10 mph, how does he do in that situation? We give you those stats."
Fox gets online mileage out of the network's on-air personalities, starting with John Madden, who contributes four columns a week-players and games to watch, even recipes from his cookbook. On-air talent including Dick Stockton and Pat Summerall also write columns, as does comedian Jimmy Campbell, the pre-game show "prognosticator." Users can pick against Campbell for prizes that include trips to games.
Goldberg says the company is testing convergence applications, primarily centered around digital set-top boxes, and notes that its sister European satellite TV company, BSkyB, already has scored with enhanced TV for soccer. "We're the leader in broadband sports, the No. 1 service on Roadrunner," he adds. "We've created broadcast-enhanced content for them, more based on video packages with clips of interviews and Fox talent. And we're really big in mobile electronics through PalmPilots and Windows CE devices; we're No. 2 on Avantgo.com, which allows you to pull info off the Web. We think in terms both of what's best for the Internet and what's the best TV product because they absolutely go hand in hand. There are a number of platforms out there, and they're barely in their infancy."
As the technology improves and broadens out, all players foresee ever-hipper convergence applications.
Snyder suggests that, if TV rights could be worked out, football fantasy freaks would be able to track video of all their players. Leess looks forward to digital set-top boxes that would allow for more signals on one channel. "If we have four channels of video, we can feed you cameras one, two and three, with maybe another for instant replay, and you decide which angle you want to watch. It's not in the immediate future, but it is in our future and as programmers we've got to be prepared for it.