Jul 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Tyrone Lam has an apt name for an interactive TV executive. His industry has been on the lam.
ITV officials said in the mid-1990s that the two-way technology would take over our living rooms-but they didn’t say that it might take more than a decade. The ITV business has been a major disappointment.
As an 11-year industry veteran, Lam has heard all the explanations. But one excuse for ITV’s failure really gets him upset: That the industry has been unable to agree on uniform technical standards. Some officials say cable operators and TV network officials have been reluctant to invest in ITV programs until standards are set.
“The technology is never the problem,” counters Lam, who is now the president and chief operating officer of Buzztime Entertainment, an interactive game company. “If cable operators see an ITV program being successful, they will find the technology. You can bet on that.”
Lam is doing his part. For a small monthly licensing fee, Buzztime provides cable operators with interactive trivia and multiple-player games. The Buzztime channel, which is free to consumers, has been added to three small cable systems, including Susquehanna Communications in Pennsylvania. Cable operators have found that interactive game players will spend more on programming, such as premium movie packages available in digital cable subscriptions.
“Since we launched Buzztime last June [2002], our digital churn has lowered and our customers have raved about the Buzztime trivia channel,” says Dan Templin, SusCom’s VP of programming and marketing.
Lam says he expects one or two more multiple system operators to sign on before year-end.
“MSOs are very conservative. But for very little cost, they can easily add a service that will reduce their churn and increase their customers’ satisfaction,” Lam says.
Lam understands that interactive TV will not be successful unless it’s entertaining and easy to use. In the past, many ITV companies have pushed everything from ordering pizza to surfing the Internet, tasks that seem better suited for non-TV devices. In addition, cable and satellite TV operators must be able to deploy ITV features without great cost or technical requirements.
“Many ITV features were difficult to use, and for [cable operators], difficult to implement,” Lam says. “Too many companies have tried to do anything and everything. They are all in the technology business, but that doesn’t mean it should be all about technology.”
Despite their truth, Lam’s comments are still considered heresy by some interactive TV officials. Many ITV companies have their roots in the PC world, which believes technology should be revered, not feared.
However, there is growing evidence that the industry is changing, largely, of course, because officials are tired of beating their heads against the wall. ITV companies are putting more emphasis on games and interactive polls rather than shopping and Internet surfing. Even Microsoft, which has invested billions in the industry with little success, acknowledged a year ago that its ITV software must be simpler.
Responding to the new approach, Wall Street gave the industry a reward on July 8. Shares of three interactive TV software companies-OpenTV, Liberate Technologies and WorldGate-all jumped more than 10 percent, with WorldGate posting a 36 percent increase.
If the industry continues to ma-ture, that might happen again.
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He can be reached at Swann@TVPredictions.com.