Interactive Boom Predicted for 2004

Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Even the most optimistic pundits usually agree that interactive television has been stalled for the past few years. But a number of companies on the leading edge of ITV are predicting a veritable explosion in services and availability this year.
GSN’s interactive programming-now currently at 84 hours per week of largely two-screen interactivity-is slated to begin the transition to one-screen interactivity this year, said John Roberts, senior VP of interactive at the newly rebranded network.
GSN will likely be one of many content providers offering one-screen ITV applications, which allow viewers to play along or interact on the TV screen itself using the remote control. With two-screen applications the viewer plays along on the computer, or in some cases, via a cellphone.
TechTV, which is being acquired by Comcast, introduced its first slate of regular nightly interactivity, called “Hyperactive,” last week. “Hyperactive” is based on two-screen applications with a play-along component to the network’s two shows that air each weeknight in the late-night block: “X-Play” and “Unscrewed with Martin Sargent.”
The network plans to expand the interactivity to four hours nightly by the end of the year and to offer a one-screen version as set-top boxes are rolled out, enabling such functionality later this year, said John Gilles, director of interactive TV at TechTV. Given that the network will soon be part of the Comcast portfolio, TechTV will likely have a launch pad for such one-screen interactivity with its new corporate parent’s large footprint.
Transitional Tool
Two-screen interactivity has traditionally been viewed as a transitional tool to bridge the gap to the more desirable consumer experience of one-screen interactivity.
“I see a lot of activity in one-screen interactivity in ’04,” GSN’s Mr. Roberts said. The inevitable migration toward one-screen interactivity is driven in large part by the market expectations for DirecTV’s dive into interactivity in earnest in the second half of this year.
DirecTV has said publicly that its ITV applications will be similar to what sister company BSkyB has introduced successfully in the United Kingdom in what many industry observers believe has been the proving ground for ITV. “We will be rolling out new interactive services in the second half of the year,” said DirecTV spokesman Bob Marsocci.
To support its ITV rollout in the United States, DirecTV will introduce new set-top boxes to some of its 12.2 million subscribers later this year that will enable additional interactivity.
GoldPocket Interactive produces ITV programs for a number of content providers, including CBS, PBS, Fox, GSN and Comedy Central. Based on its relationship with those and other providers and conversations with cable and satellite operators, GoldPocket CEO Scott Newnam predicted that the number of set-top boxes that enable one-screen interactivity will grow to more than 15 million by the end of the year. That’s up from 1 million a year ago at this time. About 6 million of those boxes will be from cable operators.
New one-screen applications will include a mixture of play-along games, fantasy sports, and voting and interactivity in reality shows, he said. Such one-screen options are being called “red button” ITV because of the possibility of accessing them simply by pressing a button on the remote.
In addition to DirecTV’s move into the ITV space, the so-called “TiVo threat” is also driving the ITV push this year, Mr. Newnam said. About 86 percent of viewers watching a show with GoldPocket-enabled interactivity stay through the commercials because the ads are interactive too, he said.
ABC Enhancements
ABC has been one of the most aggressive broadcasters to explore ITV and offered enhancements for nearly 50 broadcasts in 2003. The appetite for one-screen interactivity is growing, said Rick Mandler, VP and general manager for enhanced TV at ABC.
He’s evaluating the prospect of offering one-screen ITV applications on ABC. “We need it to work financially, and we are optimistic that it will,” he said.
ITV is no longer an experiment at ABC, he said. “It’s past the point where we’re willing to throw some money and see what happens. We need to be able to recover the investment we are spending on a year-to-year basis. So far, we are having a good year, and we expect to make money.”
Despite the heightened attention to the one-screen migration, two-screen interactivity won’t fall by the wayside. In fact, what was once thought of as a transitional tool may have the unexpected bonus of some staying power, given the high numbers for PC penetration, the prevalence of wireless networking and the growth of broadband, Mr. Mandler said.
Besides, consumers have exhibited a willingness to interact with the TV via the cell-phone, a ubiquitous technology, said Ben Mendelson, president of the Interactive Television Alliance.