EBIF, Revisited

In the blur of last week’s mash-up of cable events, the lingo landscape bulged with EBIF, pronounced “ee-biff.”

EBIF refresher: Five or so years ago, U.S. cable got wiggy about a U.K. interactive TV staple that allowed viewers to participate with programs by “pressing red” whenever a “red button” appeared on the screen.

Work commenced at CableLabs to fast-track a way of doing “program synchronous” interactivity here, so that viewers could, say, click to vote a player off a reality show, or click to dive into the on-demand warehouse to pull up additional titles of an episodic show, or see longer-form versions of an ad.

A driving goal was ubiquity. Nobody wanted another interactive plan that worked only on a small subset of deployed set-top boxes. That body of work began to be called “ETV,” for “Enhanced TV.” The technology behind it was the enhanced binary interchange format (EBIF).

Somewhere in there, Canoe was born, and took the lead on the ad-centric applicability. That work will become reality yet this year, Canoe people said last week.

Comcast executives are similarly headlong into EBIF, which is good news – because if consumers are exposed only to EBIF triggers that lead exclusively to ads, they could easily “learn,” incorrectly, that clickable things on the TV screen are ads, so why bother.

The word from Comcast: Eleven million set-tops will be EBIF-enabled by year-end; shloads more next year. Applications will be launched in three categories: Content-based (a better way of saying “program synchronous”), widget-oriented (meaning not tied to a particular show), and guide extensions.

That last one was news to me. It makes sense, especially for expediency: Stop spending a year or more on enhancements, including testing a big, monolithic code footprint to work right on a huge and mixed base of deployed boxes. Instead, launch smaller features individually, and quickly, using EBIF.

Example: A “remind/record” app, which lets consumers ask to be reminded to watch favored programs. The “remind” part is aimed at people who don’t use a digital video recorder – you’re watching TV on one channel, and are reminded that you wanted to watch a different channel at that time.

This is one of those intuitive things, like Time Warner Cable’s “Start Over,” that just makes sense for TV. Case in point: Comcast placed the “remind/record” app on an ad for Lifetime’s Project Runway in its San Francisco market for four days; 2,600 people hit it.

I don’t know any Runway fans who wouldn’t dive at a chance to get a reminder (of anything) from Tim Gunn. The whole thing makes it tempting to call 2010 “the year of EBIF.” Someone should probably just say it.