While interactive television is sort of like picture phones — predicted for years, but never quite perfected — now may be the time for broadcasters to take a serious look. With the cable-led Canoe Ventures, the future may really be now. And since TV stations already have the content management and trafficking software they need to implement various interactive services, they should start talking to their cable operators and thinking about what Internet-ready TVs mean to them.
It’s hard to write about interactive TV without some measure of skepticism. After all, the idea of electronically talking back to your TV sets goes back 30 years and it’s still little more than a clunky means of ordering on-demand movies from pitifully small libraries. I still can’t order a pizza on my TV, which, for some reason, has always been the holy grail of iTV crusaders.
The whole business got started with Qube, Warner Communication’s big experiment empowering the citizens of Columbus, Ohio, with polling, PPV and interactive games and learning.
Qube was a lousy business, but, boy, with the Warner hype machine turned up full blast, every city in America wanted something like it. So, if nothing else, it helped Warner win lucrative urban cable franchises around the country.
Old timers may also recall that broadcasters had an interactive play of their own in the early 1980s. Teletext, as it was known, was really pseudo-interactivity. Over an unused portion of their analog signals, TV stations would send continually updated data — headlines, scores, weather info– to set-top boxes. Viewers could then use their remotes to call up the stored data and display it in crude graphics and type on their TVs.
I remember the late Julie Barnathan, the tech innovator at ABC, once showing me a tiny printer that could be built into a teletext box to churn out actual coupons that viewers could ask for and take to the store with them.
Although teletext (along with its wired counterpart videotext) presaged the Internet revolution, it was far from a viable service. Broadcasters’ interest soon petered out.
Other interactive technologies have come and gone over the year — all promising to order information and, in some cases, actual products right from the living room sofa. Some might remember Wink from around the turn of the century.
Now, here we can go again. This time the charge is being led by Canoe Ventures, a joint venture of big cable operators: Comcast, Time Warner Cable (a descendent of Qube’s Warner Communications), Cablevision, Cox Communications, Charter Communications and Bright House. They are throwing $150 million into the project just for starters.
Using the new EBIF standard developed by Cable Labs, Canoe plans to juice up some 25 million cable set-top boxes so that they can send targeted advertising to those homes. And in so doing, they will be creating a platform for interactive services that they and others can exploit.
Among those others are TV stations, or so says Michael Kokernak. In a guest column this week, he says broadcasters should be looking to piggyback on the Canoe platform by making deals with the operators.
With deals in hand, stations could embed interactive TV icons and links within their advertising and programming. The cable operators would then collect the viewers’ responses and pass them back to broadcasters. Kokernak says that most stations already have the content management and trafficking software they need to implement various interactive services.
What kinds of interactive services emerge will depend on the creativity of broadcasters and third-party app developers.
Kokernak, in fact, is the founder and 30 percent owner of one such developer, Backchannelmedia. It’s offering a “bookmarking” app that deposits content on a personal Web page every time a viewer clicks on an icon. The content could be the transcript of a news report, an electronic coupon or a link to a Web site with more information or even another streamed TV show.
Apps like Backchannelmedia will proliferate for cable’s EBIF platform just as they have for Apple’s iPhone, Kokernak says. “You and I can’t imagine what will come next.”
Kokernak believes the revenue potential for broadcasters is great. Stations will be able to sell the interactive links within advertising — and possibly within programs — just as they do conventional spots. Or, they could get paid on a per-click basis just as Google does. They might also get a cut of e-commerce.
I think it might work as an enhancement to conventional spots. An automaker uses TV to sell the brand, the idea of his car. With a interactive loop, it could begin selling the less visible attributes like mileage and horsepower.
Another interactive wave that could either swamp or buoy TV stations is the Internet-enabled TV set, which is connected directly to the Web and has built-in Web interfaces. It’s the latest and greatest feature on high-end HD sets.
Such sets are designed primarily to stream video from video sites like YouTube, Hulu, Nexflix, Blockbuster and others. But once a set is securely tied into the Internet, other interactive services like those envisioned by Canoe can’t be far behind. The Internet is the ultimate two-way engine.
So, perhaps this is the time for broadcasters to set aside for a moment any skepticism they may have about interactive TV (teletext was a long time ago), and start talking to their cable operators and thinking about what Internet-ready TVs mean to them.
Look, when I finally do order a pizza while watching a Domino’s ad on TV one evening, don’t you want a piece of the pie?
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]