ABC’s decision to offer updated statistics with the click of a remote-control button during four college bowl games last week scored points with those who still believe in the potential of-and the fiscal need for-single-screen interactive TV.
ABC Sports and Walt Disney Internet Group’s Enhanced TV division decided the time was right to flex content muscle developed over four seasons of offering two-screen interactivity.
In the two-screen system, stats and chats and assorted other real-time amusements were accessible via personal computers during college and pro football coverage-not to mention during fluffier fare such as the Oscars and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
They turned to OpenTV’s Wink Communications, which had all but fallen off the radar screen in the past couple of years except to DirecTV subscribers.
During the Rose Bowl, Nokia Sugar Bowl, FedEx Orange Bowl and Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, DirecTV’s 6 million-plus subscribers didn’t have to sit in front of their computers to get updated game and team stats and scores from other bowl games. All they had to do was point and click their set-top-box remote controls.
Because data is collected via satellite one set-top box at a time, there were no figures indicating how many DirecTV subscribers used the Wink service by press time last week. On Friday, with the Fiesta Bowl still to go, ABC said enhanced TV Web site traffic was increasing with each successive bowl game and tracking to deliver “well over 100,000 unique users” for the series of four games. By comparison, the two-screen application attracted an average of 45,000 unique users through this season for “Monday Night Football.”
Ford Motor Co., which sponsored the interactive applications during the Bowl Championship Series as part of a multiplatform package, and ABC won’t be the only parties interested in the information on Wink traffic.
With the cost of attendance being priced out of more fans’ reach and the rising cost of broadcast rights raising questions on how much sports broadcasters can afford, “the future of sports has everything to do with interactivity,” said Denver-based sports marketing and research analyst Dean Bonham, who believes interactive technology can create loyalty in ways that viewership alone can not.
“The more fans we can get engaged in sports from a viewership or technological perspective, the more sports are going to thrive,” Mr. Bonham said.
For interactivity to become more sophisticated and to thrive in the long run, they have to prove they can produce revenue that can “help pay for broadcasting down the road,” said Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports who now heads his own consulting firm.
Interactive applications “are fun, but they don’t bring in new revenues,” Mr. Pilson said. “The entire industry is trying to see where the break points are.”
The concept of one-screen interactive television lost a lot of heat with the dot-com bust and the stock market downturn.
At this point, “interactive television is not dead nor is it the Second Coming,” Mr. Pilson said.
“I think it is in a holding pattern,” said David Katz, VP of strategic planning and interactive ventures for CBS. His network pioneered one-screen interactive applications with NCAA basketball during March Madness, and with “Survivor,” the Grammys and during the first two seasons of “CSI,” all of which have popular companion Web sites.
“There was a lot of [one-screen] momentum a couple of years ago,” Mr. Katz said. “Today everybody is waiting to see how the software rolls out with set-top boxes.”
In the meantime, Rick Mandler, VP and general manager of Disney’s ETV Group, said, “Our challenge as producers is to come up with compelling content within today’s technical limitations.
“The content we are offering now is version 1,” said Mr. Mandler, who will deploy single-screen interactivity during the “American Music Awards” Jan. 13.
Pushing forward now, he said, will produce a “bigger payoff for us” later.
Ford’s sponsorship of the interactivity during the Bowl Championship Series was part of “a real marketing program” that had the company “coming at the consumer at least three different ways”: on air, on the Wink applications and on Disney’s ETV Web site.
Mr. Mandler would not comment on the cost of Ford’s package or whether the automaker paid the full cost of the Wink application last week.
However, Mr. Mandler said, “My group’s financials are scheduled to break even this year.” He envisions single-screen interactivity as a weapon against TiVo and Replay. The Enhanced TV executive dreams of the technology being deployed to encourage live viewing through such things as watch-and-win games, interactive promos that become tune-in reminders and even personalized commercials.
Ford did not respond to a request for comment.
Tim Spengler, executive VP and director of national broadcast for Initiative Media North America, said that while the idea of an advertiser being able to forge a relationship with a viewer via interactive television remains the “Holy Grail,” the Wink application offered “another branding vehicle” to an audience likely to include younger men, a group often among the early adopters of new technologies. “If I’m trying to reach that segment, it’s an interesting extension,” Mr. Spengler said.
Already there is a sense that two-screen activity boosts the amount of time a viewer is like to stay with the related program.
NASCAR iN Demand, which offers an array of camera angles, in-car perspectives and audio on seven contiguous channels during races on some 1,900 cable systems, is as good as cable interactivity gets today, said Jeffrey Pollack, managing director, new media, for NASCAR Digital Entertainment.
NASCAR, which offers numerous options that encourage viewers to use their TV and their computer during races, is “committed to exploring” interactive TV with its media partners. However, Mr. Pollack said, “A clear path to success in this sector has yet to reveal itself to us or to anyone.”
“If you are looking for powerful demographics and highly targeted audiences, then it’s ready,” he said. “If you are looking for mass and bulk, these platforms need to mature.”#