Interactive TV in a struggle to click

Apr 22, 2002  •  Post A Comment

To jump-start the rollout of interactive television services, a group of content developers proposed a standards initiative at the National Association of Broadcasters convention earlier this month, but ITV experts disagree on what the spark will be that finally ignites the ITV market and captures consumer interest.
It’s no secret that ITV hasn’t rolled out as quickly as expected. One of the more concerted efforts to boost the business focuses on developing standards for ITV content. Scott Newnam, president and CEO of ITV technology company GoldPocket Interactive in Los Angeles, has shepherded a group of ITV content producers through developing and implementing standards for writing ITV content based on the XML programming language. “We want to drive ITV through the content side because it’s running slowly on digital distribution,” Mr. Newnam said.
He expects the standards will encourage content producers to develop more interactive applications, since they would be readable by any platform and thus by customers accessing the content through any cable or satellite system.
The group intends to define standards within XML so that different interactive components, such as trivia or polls, will be written in the same way by different developers and will be understood by the disparate middleware platforms and ITV systems in use, Mr. Newnam said. That means cable and satellite operators wouldn’t need to make any changes to their hardware or software to be standards-compatible.
“The pipeline of content will grow significantly because of this,” Mr. Newnam said. He estimates that there are five times as many shows with interactivity being sold in this year’s upfront than a year ago, and the amount of ITV product will increase five times each year over the next few years, due in part to the adoption of standards.
Standards will help, but what the industry needs more than anything is a profit model for ITV, said Bill Harris, senior VP production and network operations for A&E Television Networks. “Nothing is going to set fire to this more quickly than realizing there is a real business here,” he said. While good ideas and clever ITV applications exist, the industry has yet to crack the code on how to make money with ITV, he said.
The use of standards can’t hurt, but the industry desperately needs a clear market leader, analysts said. “At the end of the day, some major content provider or cable operator or satellite operator will have to stick their neck out and make a bet on [ITV],” said Jim Stroud, an analyst with The Carmel Group in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.
Frank Barbieri, chief operating officer and senior analyst with interactive TV consultancy Filter Media in New York, agreed. “I think the industry needs one MSO that would be really successful and has enough eyeballs or one piece of middleware that has enough of the market,” he said.
Besides, the programming mantra of “write once, publish anywhere” championed by Java hasn’t worked well, he said. If a language is universal enough to be understood by all systems, then it often can only handle basic functionality. Middleware providers and cable and satellite operators want applications that are customized and unique, he said.
The implementation of standards addresses the content development side of ITV, but other challenges remain, said Terri Swartz, VP of marketing for Navic Networks in Boston, which provides network middleware for interactive television. A chicken-and-egg situation exists because there are relatively few cable set-top boxes deployed in the United States that are running the middleware needed to support applications written to the XML standards, she said.
John Roberts, senior VP of interactive and online entertainment at Game Show Network, who is on the advisory board for the standards committee, acknowledged that the development of standards only tackles one of myriad issues facing ITV, but said it is an important first step. “If you’re not creating compelling content, consumers won’t come back,” Mr. Roberts said.
At the NCTA show next month, the working group of the ITV standards committee will release the full specification for XML ITV development. Participants in developing the standards include ANIMAX Interactive, ARTiFACT [+] iTV, Beyond Z Interactive Media, Cylo, Final Draft, GIST Communications, grim.TV, H Design, Interspot, PushyBroad and Zeek Interactive.