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Interactive TV: Is it Still Dead?

Jan 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In 1975, comedian Chevy Chase mocked the lingering deathwatch of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco during his mock newscast on the debut season of “Saturday Night Live.” Looking into the camera each episode, Chase would deadpan: “This just in. Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.” Chase would occasionally spice up the bit by adding: “We have an update on that story. Generalissimo Francisco Franco is now critically dead.”
I was reminded of that routine last week after reading a new Ipsos-Insight study on the state of interactive TV in the United States. To put it tersely, the report concludes that ITV is still dead, perhaps critically so.
Interactive TV, the two-way technology that permits viewers to order products and play along with game shows, has yet to capture an audience, a decade after it was first called “the next big thing.” Whether it’s WebTV or Wink, viewers have shown little or no interest in interacting with their sets. In fact, the rejection has been so overwhelming that cable and satellite TV operators have moved ITV to the back burner to concentrate on other new technologies such as video-on-demand, digital video recorders and high-definition TV. And like the generalissimo, ITV has been the subject of a periodic deathwatch in the media.
However, the ITV industry has more lives than Freddy Krueger. Refusing to give up, ITV enthusiasts say this will be the year. Rupert Murdoch, a longtime ITV supporter whose News Corp. now controls DirecTV, is expected to make two-way interactivity a top priority in the satcaster’s lineup. DirecTV sources say Murdoch will likely add everything from an interactive horse racing channel to multiple camera angles for sporting events to features that will permit viewers to play along with shows on his Fox Network.
As a longtime observer of interactive TV, and an author of a book on the subject, I agree that Murdoch is the industry’s best hope. The media mogul has an unerring sense of what motivates the masses, whether he’s launching a news channel, a newspaper or a satellite TV service.
However, before ITV fans get too cocky, they should read the Ipsos-Insight study. According to its authors, the technology may be beyond rescuing. For instance, despite a decade of hype, only 50 percent of Americans have even heard of interactive TV, and only 11 percent of U.S. adults say they are “somewhat familiar” or “very familiar” with it.
“There has been so much industry hype about ITV, we expected higher levels of consumer awareness,” said Lynne Bartos, who works in Ipsos’ Cable, Media and Entertainment research division. “Only 11 percent familiarity is a surprisingly low percentage.”
The numbers get worse. Asked how interested they are in ITV activities (regardless of their level of awareness), the most popular response was the ability to control camera angles, which was cited by just 26 percent of adults. Only 15 percent of respondents said they like the idea of playing games against other viewers, a feature often cited as a sure thing by the ITV crowd.
“ITV programmers and content providers still have some work to do to raise awareness levels, improve consumer understanding and get consumers excited about the features and benefits of interactive TV,” said Bartos.
Agreed. But after 10 years, don’t you think consumers should be excited by now?
Phillip Swann is president and publisher of TVPredictions.com. He can be reached at Swann@TVPredictions.com.