As interactive TV technology improves, programmers and advertisers learn the possibilities.
The sheer volume of press about interactive TV during last week's National Association of Broadcasters convention seemed to deflect even more wind from the becalmed sails of digital TV--last year's hot topic among TV executives and media types in Las Vegas.
Programmers, service providers and technology vendors large and small, established or start-up, issued a steady stream of new-product and joint-venture announcements during the April 10-13 show, touting either ITV telecast plans or infrastructure items designed to enable them.
Talk of ITV also dominated the recent National Association of TV Program Executives confab and even January's Consumer Electronics Show, noted Russ Booth, a director at Mediacom, Grey Advertising's independent media subsidiary. "They're all increasingly changing focus to the applications, not the gear," Booth said. "I think there's great promise in realizing the role of interactive TV. It's the recognition of that huge opportunity that is the buzz."
Attempts to launch interactive television beyond the Winky-Dink and You stage--in which a 1950s TV show encouraged kids to fill in on-screen visuals by drawing on a plastic sheet over the TV screen--have faltered over the past two decades, mostly because the technologies needed for successful interaction haven't been in place. These include powerful signal-processing, cheap mass storage and fast two-way communications.
Another drag on ITV deployment has been the concerned industries' inability to identify just what kinds of activities and services the audience will welcome in the couch-potato confines of the living room--or in other venues.
The term ITV has been used to embrace everything from simple onscreen point-and-zap program listings to full Internet functionality with e-mail and e-commerce. At a basic level, ITV also could entail clicking on an icon to get supplemental information in real time about the show being aired--or a sponsor's advertisement. ITV sometimes means "two-way" TV that lets the home audience respond instantaneously to quiz-show questions or viewer polls, and perhaps get some instant gratification in the form of a game score and prize or the running tally of peer response. In yet another optimistic scenario, ITV would provide enhanced functions to give viewers some measure of control over the incoming program. This could include selecting camera angles during a sportscast or directing alternative endings to a potboiler through video technology called "seamless branching."
As is so often the case, some pundits see pots of gold at the end of a rainbow that's illusory, or at least ill-defined, to other observers. A report last fall from Forrester Research forecasted $20 billion in ITV-related revenues by 2004. ITV advertising would generate $11 billion for program providers by then, the Forrester report said, while e-commerce vendors would rake in $7 billion.
The think tank said that point-and-zap electronic programming guides (EPGs)--the most rudimentary form of ITV--will be in 55 million homes by 2004. That's not entirely off the map. Thomson Consumer Electronics, parent of TV market share gorilla RCA, has contractually committed to build Gemstar EPGs into 30 million sets over the next 10 years, including inexpensive 19-inch models.
As for more enhanced forms of ITV, Forrester was more circumspect: 24 million households by 2004, owing to the evolving nature of ITV programming and the more complex (read, expensive) functions required of the TVs and set-top boxes themselves. That might be sand-bagging: "Chipsets" for ITV functions already sell below $15 each in volume quantities, and the cost of this advanced signal-processing will continue to drop. But what kind of ITV signals those chipsets will process is a valid hedge. Some observers aren't so concerned about the hardware as they are about the heavy lifting that lies ahead for content creation.
"There's a danger in going too far too fast from the program or ad content sides," said David Ward, analyst for San Diego-based DFC Intelligence. "To some extent, even the Gen Y crowd that grew up with PCs and is accustomed to interactive apps still uses the TV for passive entertainment.
"Meanwhile, whatever the creative community does with ITV, it will have to be scalable to some least-common-denominator level," Ward said. "Remember, no matter how many bells and whistles the TV makers add, viewers who don't own the latest ITV sets are still a sizeable proportion of the audience--and will be for some time. They have to be kept in mind."
Grey's Booth concurred regarding what he called "the challenge" facing content creators. "We're all excited, but challenged. There's still a lot we've got to learn about the consumer's attitude toward interactivity," he said. "And a key lesson comes from the introduction of the VCR.
"Originally, it was perceived as a device for recording from TV, and that's how the first-adopters thought of it," Booth said. "Now we know that it's primarily used for viewing prerecorded movies--which is how the vast mass market came to see the value of the VCR. Given that, what is the business plan for interactive TV? We've entered into it--we're not on the cusp anymore. The technology is just about where it needs to be. The concern is not about technology, but the consumer's acceptance of the idea. It can't be too complicated, and it will need scaling for different levels of consumer interest. This is what the advertising community has to consider."
Any doubts that the technology for ITV is close at hand should be dispelled by some recent accomplishments and forthcoming developments.
For example, Time Warner Cable in New York recently launched an interactive advertising service using Wink Communications' Wink Enhanced Broadcasting technology. Viewers with Wink-enabled cable set tops or TVs simply use their remote control to click on the Wink icon when it appears in a commercial to get coupons, product information or samples by mail. According to Wink, sponsors planning to create interactive ads include Clorox, Disney, Gateway Computer, General Motors, Honda, Kraft, Pfizer, Charles Schwab and Unilever. On the interactive entertainment side, E! Entertainment Television last month used Wink on Academy Awards day to let viewers vote for their favorites in seven Oscar categories. Results from the poll were displayed at the conclusion of the ceremony. Also last month, HBO used Wink to enable viewers to access additional source materials from a documentary on cancer.
At last week's NAB, Wink announced breakthroughs that enhance the infrastructure for its interactive service. One is a server that will enable telecasters to send viewers entire HTML Web pages encoded in video signals that comply with the ATVEF standard (Advanced TV Enhancement Forum, developed by Microsoft and others). In the past, the service could only send URL addresses when the viewer clicked for more information on a program or ad, and obtaining the information was delayed until the viewer could connect to the Internet and download the pages.
The breakthrough is considered of keen interest to advertisers, since viewers can get supplemental information during the space of a 30-second spot. NBC, Liberate Technologies, The Weather Channel and WebTV said they will employ the technology.
Another interesting technology touted at NAB was ImaginOn's "Internet TV station-in-box." The San Carlos, Calif.-based company said its ImOn.comTV Instant Internet TV is a turnkey software package which enables a station's or cable operator's Web site to present interactive TV through the browser of any PC with a cable, DSL or T1 connection of at least 384 kbps speed.
The system is targeted to stations and cable operators that want to expand their audience beyond local reach, and also create narrowcast specialty channels, said David Schwartz, ImaginOn president and CEO. The company's ImaginAuthor software tools enable fast conversion of the station's video footage to the ImOn.comTV format. Schwartz said the system's other unique functions include linking video directly to Web pages; viewer-directed video branching for seamless scene-changes; and a proprietary search engine that automatically performs video-content-sensitive searches of the onscreen subject. The system's appeal to advertisers is its ability to let them measure the effectiveness of their spots in real time, by viewing the instantaneous clicks on links embedded in commercials.
Perhaps the most inveigling ITV announcement timed for NAB comes from a company called VEIL Interactive Technologies. The acronym stands for Video Encoded Invisible Light, and the technology co-developed with TV pioneer Sarnoff Corp. would enable viewers to obtain coupons or other incentive promotions wirelessly from TV programs or home videos. The partners said the system also has two-way applications to let viewers play real-time video games or make other purchases instantaneously through PCs, cell phones or online personal portable devices.
VEIL execs said its technology uses a low-cost detection device and inexpensive ValuCard to receive and record digital data transmitted with a program. Unlike systems that piggyback such signals on TV's Vertical Blanking Interval, VEIL data can't be stripped from signal, the company said. They explained that VEIL data is inserted into the video program and rides on the active video signal. Consequently, data can be carried by broadcast, cable, satellite, the Internet and even by home videos on cassette or DVD. Additionally, VEIL data will carry through on home video recordings and also survive digital compression, thereby ensuring availability through time-shift recordings and existing analog TVs and VCRs. The companies didn't divulge a time frame for commercialization.
Separately, St. Louis-based VEIL (formerly known as Koplar Interactive Systems International) announced a system for broadcast verification in conjunction with Competitive Media Reporting (soon to merge with Taylor Nelson Sofres). According to the companies, the VEIL technology will enable CMR to track ads, news segments and other programming occurrences, and report within 24 hours what channel, market and time the item was aired. Whatever these technologies enable, the Holy Grail of ITV proponents remains broad bandwidth and a real-time return channel for viewer's instantaneous responses. Cable modems serving the TV will address the latter concern, but for the time being, other ITV delivery methods (broadcast and satellite) still depend on a dial-up modem--a distinctly nonspontaneous route. Even with speedier DSL modems, TV sets still require a telephone connection to send ITV responses upstream. But two forthcoming solutions will link the ITV more directly to the programming source, one of which is applicable to the United States.
Earlier this year, Thomson Consumer Electronics and partner Gemstar announced a joint venture called @TV Media that will employ two-way wireless paging to provide a return path for ITV.
The partners said they envision a paging device built into a tiny transceiver connected to the TV. The unit will let viewers use a remote control to respond instantly to ITV programming, such as audience polls, interactive sportscasts and game shows (Adweek IQ CoolTool, Oct. 18, 1999), or to request information or make purchases. The wireless transceiver then relays the viewer's input to a remote processing center for action or fulfillment.
Thomson and Gemstar say the pager/transceiver also will receive programming for onscreen display, such as local news, traffic and weather. They contend the system is feasible for an ITV return path because the coverage of 900 MHz has expanded, and the cost has come down enough to enable mass-market devices. Thomson said its first products could arrive as soon as next year.
As for the other two-way ITV implementation, Americans will have to travel to Ireland to see it. The digital TV system to be deployed there next year uses broadcast technology to send ITV responses directly from the set or set-top box to Radio Telefis Eireann, Ireland's national TV service.
RTE calls the system WINDS (Wireless Interactive Network for Digital Services). The DTV sets receive programming on the usual rooftop or set top aerial, but also have a stubby cell phone-like antenna for sending messages back to the station on a very low-power UHF television frequency. Like a cell phone system, there are repeater stations spread around neighborhoods and the countryside. These receive signals from the homes and relay them to larger broadcast towers for processing. RTE says the turnaround time is a fraction of a second. For purposes of e-commerce, each TV home is addressable and the two-way communication is encrypted.
Addressability is on the ITV wish list of Russ Booth, who said he's also "enthused about the potential for getting a real-time response back from viewers." Booth would also like to see the ability to address specific ITVs in different venues within the home.
"When you think about the family TV room, it's a dynamic experience. There is co-viewership, people coming and going with different interests," said Booth. "But the response in the kitchen will be different, and perhaps that is where you will want to beam a recipe instead of a beer spot. The TV in the children's room is another consideration. The applications will be a lot different, and with ITV we have to be responsive to that. It's similar to scaling for active and passive viewers. In the future, ITV can serve both." n
Stephen A. Booth is senior editor of TV Digest, a newsletter covering the broadcast and consumer electronic industries.