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This Time, Interactivity for Sure...But Maybe Different

I’m looking at an NCTA Show Daily dated May 5, 1998. The headline says “Interactive TV, really…we’re not kidding.”

Now I’m checking my notes from the April 2009 NCTA Cable Show. At one of the panels about interactive TV, a top MSO executive says, “This time we really mean it.”

This legacy reviews are part of my planning for what to see and hear at this week’s Cable Show in Chicago. This time I only spot three sessions that use the word “interactive”: two of them are about advanced advertising, the other is in the CIO Information Technology track (and that one also uses the term “convergence” - also a nice retro touch).

For those of us who have been aiding and abetting the interactive expectations, the new de-emphasis is a relief. Interactivity has arrived, but - predictably - not in the way those visionaries of 1998 (and two decades before that) had anticipated. Two-way TV did not mean picking the endings of movies, choosing the camera angle at a sports event or the ever-popular buying a knock-off of Jennifer Aniston’s dress.

It was not, as the revered John Higgins wrote in his 1998 coverage, “Internet via television,” “teletext … embedded into specific programs” or even “the industry’s ultimate embarrassment four years ago - video on demand.” Ironically, most of the apologists whom Higgins quoted in that article have gone on to bigger and better things - but not necessarily interactive. (Do the names Krisbergh, Wilderotter, Yudkovitz mean anything to anyone?)

Well as a decade has shown us, VOD actually became a popular feature - although not exactly as expected. The DVR, DBS competition, free replays of network programs and especially short-form videos via YouTube and Hulu have created a lively if convoluted VOD market. The long-shot money-makers of interactive TV - betting on sports events, video conferencing - have gone elsewhere or been stymied by policy or security barriers.

Is TV Everywhere a modern incarnation of interactivity because it’s on-demand?

The good news is that, except for coots like me, no one — especially subscribers — know or care about the irrationally enthusiastic promises of yore. Consumers discovered how to be interactive online. It’s no surprise that the Cable Show’s hotbed of continuing interactive dreams is in the advertising world. (It’s also nice to see that one interactive constant has survived: Arthur Orduña, CTO of Canoe Ventures, will appear on both ad panels that mention interactive TV.)

More significantly, cable’s hardware finally has the firepower to handle the targeted, customized, focused ads that, we were promised, were just around the corner 15 and 20 years ago. Brands and marketers are still sniffing around to figure out how to execute - but now there’s a decade-long track record of interactive marketing and ecommerce on the Web.

From the hoary history of cable, I’ve extracted proof of concept adventures via such diverse interactive attempts as QUBE, PlayCable, Videoway, Telaction and the Full Service Network (which one curmudgeon always inquired, “Full of what??). Yet the search continues, although possibly in a more realistic vein.

I’ll be listening for new promises and more mea culpas in Chicago. I’m anticipating that it won’t just be about “interactive TV” - but rather, and more realistically, the broader issue of cross-platform interactive content and revenue-producing experiences - or (to use the au courant term) “engagement.”

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, MD, and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at