SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
Interactive television puts channel surfers on the Web
Pam Dixon 06-Jun-1999 Sunday
Ask people about interactive television, and it soon becomes clear that most don’t know what it is, and those who do could care less about it. The resounding “So what?” echoing among the general public makes for one of those delicious ironies in life.
But according to the people who make television happen, the time for interactive, also known as “enhanced,” television is now. Ask these power brokers about interactive television, and you’ll hear all about how television is going to be turned upside down in a mere few years by changes that are already well under way.
“The one thing we know about the (World Wide) Web is that it is transformative. It’s also highly personalizable,” says Robert Tercek, senior vice president of digital media for Columbia TriStar Television, which is part of Sony Pictures Entertainment.
“Because of those qualities, the Web has gutted retail, and it’s gutting the music industry. Where the music industry goes, we follow. I’m looking at it coming my way, and I fully anticipate the Web to do the same thing to television.”
To the consumer, having interactive television means that provided you have the right equipment (such as digital cable, Web TV, or a computer with a TV chip), you can watch an “enhanced show” and interact with elements that have been added to the screen.
The enhancements that producers are creating today are much more sophisticated than simply listing a URL related to a television show. New enhancements include live chat, e-mail, e-commerce capabilities, deep background information related to the show, and detailed information that has been highly personalized for the viewer.
Fortunately, the enhancements used in interactive television are being created according to standards formed by the Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF).
“The members of ATVEF came together early on to agree on how to code and deliver the enhancements,” says Nick DeMartino, director of strategic planning for the American Film Institute, one of Hollywood’s leading institutions for movies and television. “It has been a key factor in laying the groundwork for enhanced television’s acceptance.”
How enhanced TV works is that the television signal is mixed with data from the Web. (Enhancements are created using Web coding.) All the information then appears as one seamless image on your monitor, PC or television. Thanks to the existence of standards, viewers using various interactive set-ups will be able to view interactive shows without worrying about the technology involved.
A trickle of shows
Naturally, to enjoy the interactivity, you have to have interactive shows to look at. And that has been a sticking point. Even though there have been high-level industry discussions and activities surrounding interactive television for well more than a year, it is only now that a handful of demo projects and tapes have been created.
As of April 16, an interactive version of “Judge Judy” — a top-rated syndicated show — went live for broadcast every Friday. While some may scoff, “Judge Judy’s” fledgling weekly interactivity is a genuine milestone. It’s the first major show on a non-cable network to get enhanced and make it beyond the demo stage, with many more set to follow soon.
“We pulled the trigger on `Judge Judy’ because we had to move from creating demos to reality,” says Larry Namer, co-founder of the E! Entertainment Network and the president of Steeplechase Media, one of the largest new-media production companies creating enhanced television. “The weekly deadline of having enhancements ready for a Friday show is extremely useful in creating a production process for enhanced TV.”
And having a production process is no small matter in an industry where those processes have been honed and refined for 50 years.
“The main purpose of the moment is to get smart about interactive TV,” says Tercek. “We need to find the optimal production process for an entirely new type of TV production.”
Tercek, like many others involved with network television, has taken note of the fall of the retailers who decided to wait until e-commerce hit before getting involved with it. “And look what happened to them,” he says. “The point is to do your learning before the technology gets popular.”
Growing the talent
A big part of the learning comes from the training side. “Without the ability to find experienced television professionals to actually produce the enhancements, there won’t be any high-quality enhancements for anyone to see,” says DeMartino.
The American Film Institute (AFI), thanks to funds from a major Intel grant and direction from DeMartino, has dedicated significant resources to enhanced television. The AFI holds a now-annual enhanced-television workshop intended to foster new media talent.
“We had about 12 test-bed projects last year,” says Anna Marie Piersimoni, director of AFI’s enhanced-television workshop. “We’re expecting the same this year.”
Piersimoni, who proudly showed off blueprints for a new, dedicated enhanced-television lab, says the lab, among the first of its kind, will host seven Intel workstations and will be a full, production-based resource.
“We’re training a future generation of producers in these workshops,” says DeMartino. “We’re figuring out what the questions are, then we’ll set about figuring out the answers.”
This fall, “Judge Judy” will get some competition when Columbia TriStar plans to roll out interactive versions of several of its major shows.
“We’re reviewing our entire slate of programs for enhancements in the United States and overseas,” says Tercek.
Later this year, the Documentary Channel (DCH), a new, fully interactive cable network, is set to launch. The early tapes of the DCH are in, and they are compelling.
“The Documentary Channel will be showing provocative documentaries that don’t get aired right now,” says Namer, who is creating the enhancements for the channel. The enhancements are visually unobtrusive and modern-looking, without looking anything like a Web page.
Viewers will be able to scroll a customized news, stocks and local-weather ticker discreetly at the bottom of their screen. Viewers will also be able to view detailed information about the documentary in a transparent text box, and they can purchase books that go along with the topic in another discreet little box.
“These are simple things,” says Namer. “But they appeal to the way most people watch TV. People shouldn’t have to interact if they don’t want to.”
In early 2000, one of the first interactive, fully digital cable networks, Hobby Craft Interactive, is scheduled to launch.
“Hobbies and crafts comprise a $14 billion-a-year industry,” says Steve Matela, senior vice president and general manager of Hobby Craft Interactive (HCI), from the network’s Solana Beach offices. “The problem with the industry is that it is made up of small companies spread out over the country with no Microsoft or General Motors as an anchor.” Matela and the network’s founder, Rita Weiss, believe that the Hobby Craft Interactive network will serve as an anchor for the hobby industry.
“It is a perfect information distribution vehicle for a niche market, much like the Food Channel is,” says Weiss.
Like the Food Channel, HCI will produce shows that aim to teach the viewer. But unlike the Food Channel, HCI will sell the products the shows use.
“This medium puts product placement at a whole new level, says Matela. “If something is being used on a program, it’s not just being seen — someone can actually buy it.”
Matela sees this as an advantage for people who enjoy hobbies and crafts. “Rather than just viewing, it’s like going to a class. People can type in questions, ask where they can purchase a related book, find what retail store in their area carries the supplies, or they can order supplies from their TV.”
The ability to integrate e-commerce with television stands to change the fundamental approach of television advertising.
Both Namer and Tercek say that e-commerce in the television medium will be extremely important, and that advertisers are just beginning to talk about creating enhanced material for commercials or for inclusion in programs. Some deals are in the discussion phases, but there’s nothing definite anyone can talk about yet.
Looking at the numbers
An interactive lid to Pandora’s box is definitely opening. But the lid is opening slowly.
“About 1.1 million homes have interactivity capability today,” says Namer. “The predictions are for 30 to 35 million homes in a few years.”
Namer’s numbers are in line with the rest of the television-industry experts’ predictions, which are that in about three to five years, interactive television will reach broad popular acceptance.
Internet analysts, though, present slightly different figures.
“Our research shows that in 1999, 2.4 million Internet users have TV access. By 2003, we project that number to grow to 14.3 million,” says Stuart Gibbel, an analyst with Cyber Dialogue, a leading Internet research company.
Looking between the two sets of numbers, it’s easy to conclude that even according to conservative estimates, interactive television is well on its way to becoming as standard as “traditional” television is now.
Tercek says that once the marriage between television and the Web is complete in a few years, there will be little remorse over leaving the old days of pre-interactive television.
“We’re going to look back at the first 50 years of television and wonder how we could have stared at that box for so long without doing anything with it,” he says.
Resources for enhanced television:
American Film Institute — http://www.afionline.org/
Information and applications for the enhanced-television workshop Advanced Television Enhancement Forum (ATVEF) — http://www.atvef.com/
PUBLICATION: SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE