The need to create once, distribute everywhere requires a high degree of integration. While the number of viewers engaged in interactive or enhanced television programming has not yet achieved a considerable mass throughout the world, it is an application whose time has clearly come. The benefits are clear, with new revenue generating services and increasingly more attractive and targeted advertising meaning that the payoff to broadcasters and their advertising clients will be huge. Currently, the delay in making this dollar-inducing nirvana available is in equal parts a content and a technology issue.
Internet or TV?
When we talk about interactive and enhanced TV content there really are two areas: Internet-type applications on TV and TV programming enhanced with interactivity.
Many pundits are exploring how can we transfer the two-way user experience of the Web, to make the Internet work on TV. I would ask the question “does the Internet work on the Internet?” Interactive TV does offer the opportunity to convert Internet content into interactive TV content, but only good Internet content will make compelling interactive TV. Further, does Internet on TV equal TV eats Internet? It certainly provides an opportunity for broadcasters to be portals and use identical business models to ISP/portals with transaction-based activity and Web-style advertising, which can be targeted according to personal profile.
The challenge of delivering Internet applications to TV is largely solved. The challenge of keeping up with the latest PC ‘plug-in’ technology in the low-cost set-top box platform will remain an ongoing one. The “PC or TV” debate will continue as content from the Internet is repurposed for TV in order to meet demand. Regional variations on the penetration of PCs and digital TV will be the major driver. Usage scenarios for in-depth information/Internet browsing starts to preclude living room-based, shared entertainment devices (i.e. TVs) and the integrated home network will see a number of different devices linked to provide solutions for different types of interaction.
TV programming enhanced with interactivity is a whole new TV genre, extending choice into a new dimension and offering time-based data/information/transactional services. Rather than numbers of programs you get new functionality, for example different views for a sports events. Rather than being able to look at an online catalog and buy a CD, you can buy the actual CD being plugged on MTV or the watches worn by actors in sitcoms. Instead of one ad being delivered to the whole audience the advertising may be targeted according to your profile derived from your viewing, online and response activity.
Technically, enhanced interactive TV programming is a much greater challenge because of the synchronization of different content types. In traditional TV it is annoying when sound and video get disjointed — but how are TV viewers going to feel if they click to order the fine wine Fraser is drinking and receive his father's beer? The need to synchronize and integrate video and audio with data, middleware and back-end T-commerce solutions becomes imperative.
None of the areas have proven to be solid revenue models and the challenge to the interactive TV community is to create major stickiness factors, not just transfer the Internet onto TV. If the appeal is not there, viewers may choose to stick to a company who gives them great movies, offers good internet access, helps them quickly find data services (weather, shares, traffic) using a nice portal, and deals with their e-mail swiftly. Broadcasters will lose out on the enhanced appeal of multiview services and the revenue opportunities that program driven impulse buys provide.
Moreover, with an increasingly segmented viewership, content for each audience base must be created, making the sheer volume of content needed difficult in terms of cost and time to produce. There will surely be faster, less expensive ways to produce advertisements and programming catered to interactive TV in the future. Advertising must be designed to work in a hybrid, integrated environment that incorporates the best of advertising with the best of broadcast television. Responses will be generated and fed back to the advertiser with technology developed specifically for this application. The bottom line is that advertisers are trying to deliver the greatest impact to as many people as possible at minimum cost, something which traditional analog TV is pretty good at, but with maximum targeting, which old TV wasn't good at.
The shift from mass market advertising to a more focused and response-based process represents a fundamental change in the companies that will advertise and the way consumers will see advertising in the future. Up until six months ago, advertising agencies seemed to have taken a low-key approach to interactivity. Now I clearly see that they have begun speaking to this arena, analyzing the value that interactive advertising can deliver and working with interactive broadcasters to develop creative campaigns for their clients.
On the entertainment side, the advantages of interactivity to the viewer are great. They receive an enhanced, more participatory experience and can tailor it to provide the type of programming and information they request. But because there is very little large-scale deployment of services offering enhanced programming to customers, we can only speculate today about what viewers want. A diverse range of programs will be created, but only the quality content that catches the imagination of the audience will survive.
Technology solutions through partnerships
From a technology perspective the challenges for delivering interactive content are complex. TV channels run on multiple distribution systems, satellite, terrestrial, cable and broadband IP and these must be integrated to make the enhanced broadcast on an individual channel work for the whole audience. The need to create once, distribute everywhere requires a high degree of integration. It still contains the same complexities of a single broadcast but adds into the equation delivery over different platforms and the management of multiple two-way response paths. In addition, just as traditional broadcast requires frame accurate insertion of advertising, so does interactive television.
One of the new benefits of interactive TV will be to forge alliances between previously un-thought-of partners. Technology providers will work closer than ever with content owners, TV producers and broadcasters, middleware developers will create alliances with compression experts, and Internet companies will partner with broadcast specialists to harness the potential of broadcast television.
Jeremy Thorp is chief technology officer of Tandberg Television.